In the absence of a visiting Mariinsky or Bolshoi company during the summer hiatus, London's balletomanes could get their classical ballet fix via the St Petersburg Ballet Theatre, the reputation of which rests on the shoulders of its prima ballerina, Irina Kolesnikova. Indeed the tour bears the immodest title the “Irina Kolesnikova London Season”. Founded by Konstantin Tachkin (Kolesnikova’s husband) and run without any state funding or sponsorship, the SPBT gives the majority of its performances on tour, sticking to tried-and-tested classics. Here, following a ten-performance run of Swan Lake, we had two performances of La Bayadère, which ably demonstrated the company’s weaknesses.

Irina Kolesnikova (Nikiya) © Konstantin Tachkin
Irina Kolesnikova (Nikiya)
© Konstantin Tachkin

Betting a company's entire tour around a single dancer is fraught with danger if that dancer fails to live up to the hype. The glossy programme book genuflects in adoration of Kolesnikova: “the sparkling jewel in the company’s crown”; “the very pinnacle of balletic artistry”. She presented an efficient Nikiya, the mysterious Indian temple dancer (or bayadère) who loves the noble warrior Solor. Elegant ports de bras graced her entry and her solo variation in the Kingdom of the Shades pas de deux displayed clinical precision and a pliant, arching back. Elsewhere, her footwork occasionally felt laboured, while a lack of characterisation meant there was zero erotic tension between her and Denis Rodkin’s Solor.

Rodkin was one of the evening’s plus points. The newly appointed Bolshoi principal is striking, with incredibly high jumps and powerful cabrioles and neat manèges. Dramatically he is, as yet, something of a blank canvas. Other guest male artists on this tour have included the Mariinsky’s Kimin Kim and the Royal Ballet’s Vadim Muntagirov, so Kolesnikova surrounds herself with talent aplenty. Natalia Matsak threatened to steal the evening as Gamzatti, the Rajah’s daughter who is betrothed to Solor (thus Nikiya’s love rival). Steely flicks and a dagger-like glare finally gave us a believable character. Her clean Italian fouettés and razor-sharp fouettés were a delight during the betrothal festivities.

The Kingdom of the Shades © Andrei Klemeshev
The Kingdom of the Shades
© Andrei Klemeshev

If Matsak shone more brightly than Kolesnikova, then so did at least two of the three soloist Shades in their tricky variations. Anna Samostrelova’s diagonal of relevé arabesques were crisply executed as First Shade, while Miho Naotsuko’s Third displayed gorgeous fluidity. But the corps was untidy, epitomised in the famous Kingdom of the Shades where the dancers enter one by one, descending a ramp, in deep fondu arabesques. By the time the first four dancers were out the traps and onto the stage, these arabesques not only had four different leg angles, but were completed at different times. A few ankle wobbles apart, this scene still cast its ethereal spell.

This lack of cohesion seems an indicator of a hastily rehearsed production, a feeling backed up by the frantic action in the Coliseum's pit during the first interval as musicians of the St Petersburg Ballet Orchestra – a scratch band containing a number of English names – scribbled down the ordering of numbers for Act II. With only 20 strings, the performance was brass and percussion heavy, Timur Gorkovenko presiding over a boisterous performance of Ludwig Minkus’ daft, but infectious score.

<i>La Bayadère</i> Act II © Andrei Klemeshev
La Bayadère Act II
© Andrei Klemeshev

The production was crowd-pleasingly bright, as jungle backcloths and garish costumes – sequin-encrusted lilac for Solor – provided a degree of exoticism. Sadly, my experience with serpents in ballet often leads to moments of unintended comedy. (Who could forget the Bolshoi’s reconstruction of The Pharaoh’s Daughter, with its hilarious hand-puppet snake in the basket?) Here, we had three serpent malfunctions in a single evening, the most damaging of which came in the finale. The original ending to the ballet has the gods expressing their displeasure at the wedding of Solor and Gamzatti, bringing the temple crashing down on everyone in an earthquake. Eschewing this ending, as do the Mariinsky and Paris companies, La Bayadère here ended after the Kingdom of the Shades where Solor, waking from his opium dream, plunges his hand into the snake charmer’s bag and is killed by the serpent’s deadly venom. Unfortunately, the departing snake charmer also took his bag with him, which then had to be winged back onto the stage for the denouement. A clumsy end to an occasionally clumsy production.