Citing Attila the Hun with pride, Erlan Idrissov, Ambassador of Kazakhstan to the UK, declared to the Coliseum audience that his country was launching a “cultural assault” on the west. In September, the youthful Astana Ballet – not yet a decade old – appeared at the Linbury Theatre. Now, just down the road, its venerable older sibling, the Abay Kazakh State Ballet Theatre, founded in 1934 and based in Almaty, made its belated UK debut with a Mikhail Fokine double bill. If Scheherazade didn’t entirely deliver eastern promise, then Chopiniana charmed – the gentlest of assaults, clothed in gauzy tulle.

Dinara Yessentaeva in <i>Chopiniana</i> © Nikolay Postnikov
Dinara Yessentaeva in Chopiniana
© Nikolay Postnikov

Fokine completely revised Chopiniana two years after its 1907 premiere, creating a plotless ballet blanc that paid homage to Marie Taglioni and the Romantic era of the 1830s and 40s, set to orchestrations of Chopin’s piano gems. Fokine offered this revision to Sergei Diaghilev for his first Ballets Russes season in Paris. The impresario renamed the work Les Sylphides, although the title Chopiniana is usually retained in Russia.

Alas, the financial constraints of touring necessitated performing to taped music, here a crumbly recording, conducted by Yerbolat Akhmedyarov (so presumably the company’s own orchestra). It came complete with pops, crackles and distortion which made it sound as if a glass harmonica was playing. The lack of pre-performance orchestral tuning certainly robbed the opening of atmosphere, but the Kazakh dancers made up for it with a fine performance in this revival by Gulzhan Tutkibaeva.

Rahim Dairov and Zhanel Tukeeva in <i>Chopiniana</i> © Elena Petrova
Rahim Dairov and Zhanel Tukeeva in Chopiniana
© Elena Petrova

Rakhim Dairov was neat and elegant as the Poet, a sensitive partner. Arisa Hashimoto’s feather-light jumps impressed in the G flat Waltz while Zhanel Tukeeva’s graceful port de bras were demonstrated in the D major Mazurka. Dinara Yessentayeva showed poise in the C sharp minor Waltz pas de deux. The young Kazakh corps was not always in perfect synchronisation but gave a credible impression of winged sylphs in ethereal long tutus.

The performance of Scheherazade was more problematic, not least because Leon Bakst’s designs were only represented by a projected backdrop, so no billowing silks, no harem musicians, the Sultan Shahriyar’s quarters replaced by a few scatter cushions. It also suffered thanks to Toni Candeloro’s tinkering with Fokine’s choreography. The flimsy plot hinges on Shahriyar’s brother planting the seed that his favourite, Zobeide, has been unfaithful to him, hence their “pretend” hunting mission, setting a trap into which the ladies of the harem duly tumble. Here, one barely notices any interaction between sultan and brother. The bumbling Chief Eunuch’s steps have been simplified – neutered? – losing many of his waddles and spins. The arrival of the Golden Slave, leaping onto the stage with the dramatic final chord of The Kalender Prince movement from Rimsky-Korsakov’s suite is a high point in Fokine’s original choreography, but is here a damp squib, transplanted a few bars into the next section.

Ulan Badenov (Chief Eunuch) in <i>Scheherazade</i> © Press office of the Abay Kazakh State Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre
Ulan Badenov (Chief Eunuch) in Scheherazade
© Press office of the Abay Kazakh State Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre

Malika Elchibayeva was sweet rather than sultry in the central role of Zobeide, but her sinuous arms and flexible back bends did much to lure in the viewer. Azamat Askarov’s Golden Slave initially lacked a little charisma, although his spins and leaps raised the pulse in the orgiastic finale. The three odalisques gave a coquettish performance and Nelson Peña brooded darkly as Shahriyar, but this journey along the Silk Road felt half-baked, a casualty of a one-night stand.

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