George Balanchine is so strongly associated with the foregrounding of American ballet's distinct style that it’s easy to forget just how heavily he was influenced by his training in the Russian Imperial ballet tradition. Seeing his works performed by the current Mariinsky Ballet Theatre brings it all full circle: these dancers are direct inheritors of that same Imperial tradition, but also of the influence that Balanchine’s neo-classical aesthetic had on ballet’s development throughout the 20th century. They are also consummate artists, and their accounts of Balanchine’s Apollo and A Midsummer Night’s Dream on Friday night were luminous, as fine an interpretation as you could wish for.

Tereshkina and Askerov in <i>A Midsummer Night's Dream</i> © Natasha Razina
Tereshkina and Askerov in A Midsummer Night's Dream
© Natasha Razina

Vladimir Shklyarov is a principal of unassuming but hugely impressive talent. Chameleon-like, he moulds himself to the part he plays to the point where I hardly recognised the passionate Romeo of last week's performances in the young god Apollo whom Balanchine depicted finding his feet – almost literally – as the leader of the Muses in his 1928 work for the Ballets Russes. Shklyarov captured Apollo’s bravado, and the flickering unpredictability of a Greek god, who might regard his muses regally and serenely, but who can also dance with a kind of primeval fire in him, a little bit dangerous and definitely not human. As his muses, Kristina Shapran’s Terpsichore had much the most immediately obvious charisma, filling the stage with a sparkle that must have reached the very top of the amphitheatre (such a contrast to the last time I saw her, as a nervous Swanilda in the Stanislavsky Ballet Coppelia last year). Viktoria Krasnokutstkaya’s Calliope also caught my eye: she had more persuasive control than Shapran or Nadezhda Batoeva’s Polyhymnia, and an understated but persuasive charm.

A beautifully executed Apollo is a pleasure, but nothing like as rare a pleasure as seeing a Balanchine story ballet in Britain. His Midsummer Night’s Dream (1962) shows what a loss that is for us. While the story treatment is less compact than Ashton’s almost contemporary ballet (1964) on the same theme – and consequently drags at times – the extra characters and extensive length of Balanchine’s ballet do provide myriad opportunities for lush choreography. Here’s Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, to give us a spiky, glittery little variation, rather Odile-like (danced with panache by Anastasia Matvienko). A second Act for wedding dances allows for a coolly graceful neo-classical pas de deux with Oxana Skorik and Konstantin Zverev. And the expanded scenes in Titania’s bower give us some of the straight-up most gorgeous corps de ballet moments you will ever see; the unbelievably beautiful dancers of the Mariinsky, supple columns of rose-coloured silk, outlining on the floor the delicate art nouveau tracery of Luisa Spinatelli’s stunning 30s set. Amidst them all is Viktoria Tereshkina as Titania. She is one of those Mariinsky ballerinas (like Vishneva and Loptakina) whose every moment on stage feels timeless. Watching Tereshkina dance Titania is like being in the presence of otherworldly royalty, and you wonder how Timur Askerov’s Oberon can have the chops to demand the little page boy again after she has told him “no” with a droop of the wrist so witheringly elegant… anyone but a fairy king would slink meekly into a corner and die of shame for having provoked it.

Having made his Titania so queenly, Balanchine shortens the episode with Bottom, and the weaver-cum-donkey is a rather sadder figure than Ashton’s clown on pointe shoes; a little bit daft and a little bit lonely, though there is a funny episode when he’s more interested in grass than in Titania. Vasily Tkachenko’s Puck was a joy, an explosive, swaggering, natural comic, and he stole all his scenes with the hapless lovers. These four mere humans can seem like dull parts in comparison to all the fairies and mythical royalty, but the dancers on Friday (Krasnokutstkaya as Hermia, Andrei Yermakov as Lysander, Viktoria Brilyova as Helena and Xander Parish as Demetrius) played them for all they were worth. Brilyova’s dark-haired, crimson-clad Helena cut a dramatic figure in her despair at finding herself chased by two men, while Parish and Yermakov brought an easy comedy to their rivalrous squabbles over her.

Being so familiar with the tight arrangement of the Mendelssohn incidental music used for Ashton’s Dream, the intercutting of the score with other Mendelssohn works often jarred my ear – especially at the end where there is an abrupt cut back to the forest . But the playing by the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra was warm and sweeping, with fine singing by Kiandra Howarth, Anush Hovhannisyan and the National Youth Choirs GB Chamber Choir in ‘Ye spotted snakes’. And though the cutesiness may strike some as de trop, the child dancers playing the fairies were astonishingly well drilled, and their performance was charming. 

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