Something's rotten in the state of Russian ballet. That much is clear from news reports (and we surely haven't heard the last) of simmering resentments and violent recriminations at the Bolshoi. Yet the outcome for audiences isn't all negative. Eighteen months ago the Moscow company's starriest young couple resigned, declining to give a reason, and signed new contracts in St Petersburg – not, as you'd expect, with the Bolshoi's giant rival, the Mariinsky, but with the city's second-tier ballet outfit, the Mikhailovsky, run by the fruit magnate Vladimir Kekhman. The result is his company's sudden elevation to must-see status on what is only its third visit to London.
Giselle was a canny choice of season opener, given the technical and interpretive challenges of its title role – a great showcase for a great ballerina. As the oldest ballet still in circulation, it asks for soft arms, fluttering toes, and an overall sense of thistledown drift, as if every move were mediated by woodland mist. And yet it takes a dance athlete to negotiate the show-off steps added by Marius Petipa in the 1880s, half a century after the ballet's premiere, and a fine dance-actress to straddle the role's dramatic contrasts. In the first half we must see a quick and lively girl deceived in love; in the second, a loving, grieving ghost.
Most ballerinas are stronger in one act than the other, but Natalia Osipova, at 26 hardly a veteran of the role, meshes the effects of both. She finds patches of darkness in Act I that hint not just at her character's fatal heart defect, but also at her future reincarnation as a Wili, one of the vengeful spirits of jilted girls who roam the forest at night. In the second half, she finds glimmers of physical memory that connect the wraith to the former life. While honouring the story's every detail, she has thoroughly re-thought the role.
The pity is that this five-year-old production is following a more basic script. On Vyacheslav Okunev's Disneyfied set, tourist-board madchen in matching pinnies indulge in old-school rhubarb. When a hunting horn sounds, each puts a hand to her ear. When someone asks, where Giselle is, each shakes her head and shrugs. The hunting party are cardboard aristos, Giselle's mother a cliché of hand-wringing concern, the rejected suitor a cartoon wimp. Even the love-offering of game he hangs on Giselle's cottage door looks like flattened squirrel.
Just as dismaying is the patchy logic in the production's use of mime. On the one hand there is clear and nicely nuanced work from Roman Petukhov as the Count's valet, showing his reluctance to play a part in his master's amorous prank, passing himself off as a local lad in order to bag a pretty girl. The position is rarely so clearly stated and for once makes a printed synopsis unnecessary. But on the other hand the traditional extended mime, in which Giselle's mother creepily explains all about the Wilis, is gone leaving 16 bars of goose-pimpling music high and dry.
In the White Act there is less to meddle with. Even so, the moonlit glade comes with levitating trees, a comedy feature I put down to faulty electrics on opening night. But no, on the second night, too, a downstage bush displayed odd behaviour during the Queen of the Wilis' solo. Yet the minute Osipova's Giselle appears by her gravestone, the entire set might collapse and we would remain in her thrall. There were audible gasps as she delivered, ferociously fast, the strange flat-of-the-foot turns, a corpse spinning off its mortal coil into ether.
From then on, Osipova distils her dancing into a stream of pure feeling, pleading for her cheating lover to be spared the Wilis' punishment of dancing till he drops dead. Refinement of technique is her argument for clemency, and she bends every sinew to her task. Her quick, softly cushioned jump, her pliant line, wreathed like smoke, the deliciously slow unfolding of her body in a series of supported tiptoe hops, as close to human flight as the 1830s could conceive – all is made possible by the partnering of Ivan Vasiliev.
He, unlike she, is imperfectly built, square-ish, with bulky thighs hardly flattered by tan tights that make you think of ham in breadcrumbs. But that's all forgotten when, driven by remorse and grief, Vasiliev sets out his own stall as a technician. Ricocheting from jump to impossibly high, twiddle-toed jump, and rattling off a demonic sequence of beetling brisés, he seems a perfectly plausible candidate for death by dancing.
And don't suppose that the former Bolshoi pair are the only reason to see the Mikhailovsky. Giselle's second cast leads were scarcely less appealing. In fact Polina Semionova and Denis Matvienko are a more obvious match, particularly in the first half when her sunny ingénue and his arrogant charmer seem particularly well poised for tragedy. These two shone, too, in the simpler steps: "like two peas" was the phrase that came to mind, as you witnessed the very moment that liking turned to love, as they fell in together side by side.
Given that both sets of principals are set to front other ballets, including new works, in the Mikhailovsky season, ballet fans are faced with a difficult choice.
Season continues until 7 April (020-7845 9300)
How to impart a taste for dance to the under-sevens? English National Ballet is on to it. My First Cinderella tells everyone's favourite rags-to-riches story in a carefully adapted version by George Williamson, performed by young dancers from ENB's own school. Prokofiev's glittering score is accompanied by narration to ensure that no one is in any doubt as to what's going on. Peacock Theatre, London, to Sun, 7 April, then touring till the end of May.
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