Astana Ballet is not yet ten years old and this first visit to the UK leads a Kazakhstani double, since the nation’s older company – the Abay Kazakh State Ballet – comes to the Coliseum in November. I wonder what odds there might have been on Kazakhstan being the only country to send two full-scale ballet companies to the UK, this year? Astana came with a mixed repertory of four one-act ballets although the third of these, The Heritage of the Great Steppe, was a set of six divertissements; miniature works with a strong flavour of this former soviet republic – the world’s largest landlocked nation – with a toehold in Europe and most of its land mass in Asia.

<i>The Heritage of the Great Steppe</i> © Askhat Nurekin
The Heritage of the Great Steppe
© Askhat Nurekin

The Astana dancers, mostly graduates from the Seleznev Almaty Choreographic School, are an elegant and charismatic ensemble, entirely absorbed into the Vaganova Ballet Academy (the legacy of the Soviet era) while also infused with the mannerisms of Central Asia. There are, however, two pities about the way in which these dancers were presented. Firstly, in no way did the Linbury stage and auditorium show them to their best advantage; and secondly, they were not best served by modern choreography that also often seemed surprisingly dated.

While the Linbury Theatre has lost the “Studio” qualification in its pre-renovation title, it is still a space best suited to chamber performances, not works that engage a full-scale ensemble of 36 dancers. Frankly, the stage simply wasn’t big enough for this quantum of performers, the lighting cues were often awry (always supposing that they weren’t meant to be so out-of-kilter) and the poor sightlines meant that I missed several key narrative moments in Salomé, choreographed by Mukaram Avakhri, the Astana company’s chief choreographer, and loosely based on Oscar Wilde’s eponymous play.

<i>Salome</i> © Askhat Nurekin
Salome
© Askhat Nurekin

Kudos to Avakhri for tackling a tough subject in ballet and commiserations for a staging that clearly affected the intention of her flowing patterns in the ensemble choreography with the added complication of sharing the small stage with a very large transportable platform. It was so crowded that the detail was often lost. Nonetheless, Aizhan Mukatova proved adept in her sinuous, lascivious interpretation of the title role, well-matched by the slithering, lechery of Kazbek Akhmedyarov as Herod. Farkhad Buriyev brought contrasting wide-eyed innocence to the role of John the Baptist. But, despite these notable performances, the pivotal scenes of John’s rejection of Salomé, her vow to kiss him, the subsequent temptress dance for Herod and her demand for the Baptist’s head were underwhelming. In some cases, they were simply unseen.

This narrative ballet had been preceded by a work of three duets, entitled Love Fear Loss, choreographed by Ricardo Amarante – originally for Royal Ballet Flanders – and inspired by the life and music of Edith Piaf, although devoid of her unique torch ballad voice since the three songs chosen were interpreted by loud piano alone. Each duet represented the consecutive elements of the title, performed to music that essayed the relevant theme. They were elegant and pleasing although nothing in them had the merest scent of Paris and it was hard to discern any obvious distinction between them. As an introduction, it did the job of showcasing the dancers’ strong techniques amongst which the beautiful arms and hands of Dilara Shomayeva in the Love duet (Hymne a l’amoure) ably partnered by David Jonathan was a notable highlight.

Dilara Shomayeva and David Jonathan in <i>Love Fear Loss</i> © Askhat Nurekin
Dilara Shomayeva and David Jonathan in Love Fear Loss
© Askhat Nurekin

The six vignettes of The Heritage of the Great Steppe, largely choreographed by Tati Aigul with one-off contributions from Avakhri and A. Tsoy, were amuse-bouches of a distinctly Asian flavour. Most sections largely comprised the marshalled ranks of dancers – females with large conical, heavily decorated headwear, far too ornate to call a hat – performing traditional folk steps, mostly akin to stylised walking. Interspersed with this ensemble marching were two solos, expressively performed by Darina Kairasheva and Anai Baltenova. The whole effect was to be briefly transported to a gala evening in Astana itself.

The final work of the evening was also by guest choreographer, Amarante, and another work that he originally made for the Flanders company. A fuego lento is a one-act balletic tribute to the simmering power of tango, featuring the music of Astor Piazzolla and Carlos Gardel, including an instrumental version of my favourite Gardel song, El dia que me quieras. Two duets stood out as amongst the best work of the evening: a suitably passionate number by Ainur Abilgazina (who also impressed in the Fear duet of the opening work) and David Jonathan (an Australian export to Kazakhstan); and a same-sex duet for Sundet Sultanov and Baikadam Tungatarov. These highlights aside, it was a stretch for these dancers to assimilate the essence of tango and the work paled as it progressed to an unassuming finale.

***11