The Critics: Dance: To Russia, and the afterlife, with love

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Indy Lifestyle Online
DARCEY BUSSELL borrowed her mother's fur coat and abandoned the homeless Royal Ballet for the chillier climes of St Petersburg last weekend. There, surrounded by elephants, parrots, stuffed tigers and an exquisite corps de ballet, she danced the lead in Petipa's La Bayadere in the sumptuous Maryinsky theatre. In the process she joined an elite group of western ballerinas who have been invited to guest with the Kirov ballet.

The role of Nikiya is one of Bussell's best, and her guest appearance was an opportunity to consolidate her partnership with Igor Zelensky of the Kirov. The rapport between the pair, already noticeable last year in Romeo and Juliet at the Royal Ballet, is growing stronger.

Bussell's nerves were showing on her first entrance on the Maryinsky stage, where she was not just under the scrutiny of a strange audience but also the critical eyes of a new company. Her relief was palpable when she was joined by her partner. The combination of nerves and Zelensky produced a level of performance rarely seen before from Bussell. She flung herself into the first pas de deux with an energy and passion that revitalised her interpretation of Nikiya and also one's perceptions of her as a dancer.

Her first night did not go entirely without hitches. A previously unperformed Act II pas de deux - with Dmitri Korneyev - culminated in a difficult dead lift. It looked as if Bussell's partner was unlikely to succeed. But he prevailed in the end, although she looked distinctly unhappy when hoisted onto his shoulder in her final dance in Act II.

By her second and final performance, her worries had obviously been ironed out. It proved why she had been invited, while her partnership with Zelensky brings out an extra quality in both of them. There is total trust between them on-stage. Bussell is supremely confident that Zelensky will be there, while he seems equally assured that she will succeed at anything. The only nerves on display on Saturday night were Zelensky's, who anxiously watched Bussell sail through a tricky solo.

Ironically, now that she has found her perfect partner, Bussell's best performance came in her solo at the end of Act II. Her beautiful line in the adagio expressed the tragedy of the scene - she is dancing at her lover's betrothal feast - while a lethal gift from her rival led to a precise desperation in her dancing as she switched to a furiously fast combination of jumps. Like all great dance performances, the choreography was used to express emotion directly, rather than by adding a layer of "acting" to her dancing.

Zelensky also benefits from the partnership. His solos are always exciting, and he has the rare quality of seeming to hang in mid-air when he jumps. A fast dancer, he can make exhausting combinations seem effortless and then lift his partner without any indication of strain. What he has sometimes lacked in the past is dramatic ability, a problem he shares with Bussell, but not when dancing with her. He is also hugely popular on his home stage. An insistent audience demanded four curtain calls after one solo.

In her dressing room, Bussell chatted briefly about working with the Kirov. She admitted that she was nervous - the company is 200 strong and has numerous principals, including a superb line-up of ballerinas. She also felt she had to justify her presence there in the face of so much competition, "I felt that they must be thinking 'What are you doing here?'" Not speaking Russian didn't help either.

As for the fumbled lift, she had one week to rehearse the entire performance, including the pas de deux, which was totally new to her. Bussell wanted to drop the lift which was proving difficult, "but Igor said to me, 'You have to do it.' It's his job to lift you and he'll be fired if you don't." She looked quite horrified at the thought. But the Kirov is a gentler company - in some respects - than the Royal Ballet. Used to being vehemently pushed around at home, she was quite surprised to find that her on-stage rival, Gamzatti (Irma Nioradze) barely touches her arm to push her away during a fight. It's also a taller company. For once Bussell (5' 8") did not tower over her colleagues. And at the Kirov the men - her perennial problem at the Royal Ballet - are strong enough to handle tall partners.

Bussell's guest performance at the Kirov may well be a one-off, but it is not the last we will see of this superb partnership. In July, they are performing La Bayadere, Manon and Sleeping Beauty with the Royal Ballet at the Coliseum, and those around them - including Royal Ballet director Anthony Dowell and Zelensky's agent Michael Fisher - seem determined to promote this relationship further.

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