In these tough economic times, it is a rare thing for ballet companies to consider staging a new full-length dramatic production. But Staatsballett Berlin has been brave enough to take the plunge, and on April 9th premiered La Esmeralda, an old-fashioned Russian masterpiece, and proved that their decision had been a good one. La Esmeralda is a ballet for all ages and tastes, offering a great story, splendid sets and costumes, good toe-tapping music by Pugni, and all the elements of high drama, from cut-throat gypsies to rescue, murder and love. Add to this the non-stop gusto of the gypsy dances and the pristine elegance of sparkling classical ballerinas and you have the ingredients for a good night out.

© Enrico Nawrath
© Enrico Nawrath

Based loosely on Victor Hugo’s classic novel The Hunchback of Notre-Dame and set in 15th century Paris, the original production was staged in London in 1844 by French choreographer Jules Perrot, and taken to St Petersburg two years later. There, in 1886, the great Russian choreographer Marius Petipa enlarged and embellished the production with more dance, and the ballet continued to be performed in the ensuing years, though gradually much of the original choreography was lost or changed. In 2009, the artistic director of the Bolshoi Ballet, Yuri Burlaka, researched and reconstructed as closely as possible, Petipa’s production, together with the renowned classical choreographer Vasily Medvedev who filled in choreographic gaps where necessary. The results were a resounding success.

The Staatsballett dancers were on fine form, each individual convincing in his or her role. There is a lurking priest who lusts after the gypsy heroine -- an excellent interpretation from Mikhail Banzhaf -- and his side-kick, the gross Quasimodo, complete with limp, warts and lolling tongue, convincingly played by Marian Lazar. As Gringoire the penniless poet saved from a hanging by Esmeralda’s offer of marriage, the boyish Rainer Krenstetter danced with smooth lyricism and expression. Phoebus de Chateaupers is the knight in shining armour -- and helmet -- who falls for Esmeralda despite having a beautiful fiancée, Fleur de Lys, back at the splendid mansion, and Mikhail Kaniskin, an elegant dancer with fine, unforced technique and excellent acting made a splendid hero. (There was real life high drama backstage when the ballerina taking the role of Fleur de Lys was injured just before curtain up, and the second cast dancer who had not had a stage rehearsal was called upon to take over. Elena Pris performed remarkably well despite the challenges, and she received tremendous support from the audience.) And then there was Esmeralda the beautiful young gypsy dancer and here, Iana Salenko offered an eloquent interpretation with her strong technical ability, expansive movements, beautifully supple back -- so necessary for gypsy dancing -- high stretched jumps and expressive arms.

The Staatsballett Berlin is the first company outside the Bolshoi to add this ballet to its repertoire and, given the reception it received on opening night, it has a sure success on its hands.