Mariinsky Ballet: Swan Lake – review

Royal Opera House, London

A half-century ago, the Kirov Ballet visited London for the first time. Known before the Russian revolution as the Imperial Russian Ballet, and today as the Mariinsky Ballet, after the St Petersburg theatre it has occupied since 1886, the company entranced London audiences with the purity of its style and schooling. The Mariinsky is not the oldest ballet establishment in the world – the Paris Opera has that distinction – but it is the most revered, and this week its dancers showed us why.

On Monday, the company opened its three-week 50th anniversary season at Covent Garden with Swan Lake, with Uliana Lopatkina dancing the ballerina role. For 37-year-old Lopatkina, a gravely beautiful figure with sea-grey eyes and the most eloquent arms in ballet, her art form has always been a quasi-religious calling. And indeed there is a strong sense of ritual in the unfolding of this time-burnished text.

For western audiences this necessitates a certain adjustment, for while the storytelling is crystal clear, dramatic exchanges can appear almost disengaged in their formality. It's a dilemma. Lopatkina's interpretation of the role of Odette shows us legato dancing at its most refined. The serenity of her phrasing – every movement permitted its full, wind-in-the-sails amplitude – is breathtaking in its loveliness. At the same time, she is Olympian in her disconnection from her prince (Daniil Korsuntsev), and from the action around her.

Technically, her relationship with Korsuntsev is flawless. His impeccable stage manners and partnering skills are the perfect complement to her tragic authority. Ultimately, though, we read him as the selfless guardian of Lopatkina's introspection rather than her lover. Even in Act 3, as the morbidly alluring Black Swan, one senses her inward gaze and her lunar remoteness. In consequence the preening fouetté sequence, whose 32 consecutive turns en pointe have always given her trouble, looks jarringly out of character.

Perhaps the greatest achievement of this production is that of Nina Ukhova, one of 10 credited Mariinsky ballet masters and mistresses. For 35 years Ukhova, something of a legend in St Petersburg, has been the company's chief corps de ballet coach, and her dedication is evident in those peerless ranks of swans. Every back has the same soft-swept arch, every arm the same airy line from shoulder to fingertip, every neck is identically poised, every gaze parallel. The effect is ravishing. Even that hackneyed old show-stopper the Dance of the Cygnets assumes a hypnotic character as the petite foursome, arms interlaced, drill out implacable and perfectly co-ordinated pas de bourrée.

Presumably it is Ukhova who has overseen the new sharpness in phrasing. The corps now dance not in the split-second wake of the beat, as they used to, but precisely and pointedly on it. I'm not convinced that this is an improvement; the effect sometimes seems too bright for the work's yearning romanticism, like that of an over-restored painting. Overall, however, this is a sublime account of the world's best-loved ballet, and it is a great joy to be reacquainted with it.

Contributor

Luke Jennings

The GuardianTramp

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