London in high summer has become a magnet for Russian ballet companies, and this year they're not even bothering to take it in turns.
Sneaking in a week ahead of the Bolshoi comes the Mikhailovsky Ballet. Is there some obscure pre-Revolutionary law, you wonder, that decrees that every ballet season must open with a repertory warhorse? The Mikhail-ovsky has rustled up some intriguing Stalin-era rarities for later in its fortnight season. But to start, Swan Lake it is.
This, it turns out, is at least a fine production, based on the Bolshoi staging by Alexander Gorsky that blew London audiences away in 1956 – the West's eye-popping introduction to Russian athleticism. The story-telling is clear, design and costumes are uncommonly pretty, and the whole thing cracks along under the baton of conductor Pavel Bubelnikov. You can tell it's a native Russian orchestra from the crystalline first few bars.
These could be none other than Russian dancers, either. Are the girls' arms really longer than those of regular humans? Or is it just the cultivated line from shoulder to fingertip that creates an elegant illusion?
The corps of swans – again, echt-Russian in their Identikit propor-
tions – are very good indeed, interest heightened when you know that among their number is 17-year-old Isabella McGuire Mayes, one of the few British students ever to attend the legendary Vaganova school in St Petersburg. It's to her credit that she was so hard to pick out.
The disappointment is that the Siegfried and his Swan Queen are horribly miscast. He, Marat Shemiunov, is so lanky you fear he'll topple over; Ekaterina Borchenko, while catwalk glamorous, is a brittle emotional blank. Happily, though, supporting roles partly fill the central void, with an unusually appealing Jester (Denis Tolmachov) and a properly sinister nemesis in Vladimir Tsal, who even manages to give the wrenching off of one of his raggedy black wings (a moment that's often prey to unintended comedy) an urgent pathos.
Strap-on wings also feature in the latest show from The Rude Mechanicals, a group who tour their magical-realist theatre around village greens – you bring your own chair. These wings, however, like every other prop in Ik'r'us Inc (titles are not a strong point) are entirely imagined. And what imagination! Pete Talbot, writer, director and composer to boot, seems to have a masochistic relish for tough theatrical challenges.
In last year's show, it was the flooding of the Thames. This time it's human flight, in a version of the Icarus story, set in 1950s small-town Indiana, where wily travelling salesman Daedalus Gildersleeves (Grant Stimpson) and his moody, Harley-revving son Ikarus (Rowan Talbot, who does a mean line in motorbike sound-effects) have folk clamouring to pay 10 bucks apiece to have their dreams come true.
Artful body language, authentic commedia slap-sticks and a merrily byzantine plot are made even more vivid by superb doo-wop singing and taut instrumental playing by the five-strong cast. There are laughs. There are rude bits. And there's poetry too. I swear I've never had so much fun in a field.
'Swan Lake' 22-25 Jul (0871 911 0200). The Rude Mechanicals tour continues across the southern counties to 15 Aug (01323 501260)
While the Mikhailovsky's run continues, the Bolshoi flies in, crash-landing with its monumental Spartacus
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