The beautiful city of St Petersburg is the birthplace of Russian classical ballet and home to some of the most famous dancers in the ballet galaxy, with original epic full-length productions, created here over a century ago, still gracing the repertoires of ballet companies around the world.

It is here that Russia’s finest festival of dance takes place annually – Dance Open is now in its 13th year. While it embraces different styles of dance, from traditional to more recent offerings, it is renowned for its presentation of new works and companies not before seen in Russia. This year, the committee of Dance Open invited Complexions Contemporary Ballet from New York to open the five-day celebration. They did so with a bang – and a lot of energy.

In the beautiful cream and red Alexandrinsky Theatre, with its decorative filigree designs embellished with gold paint, the packed audience was eagerly waiting for the performance to start. The company had brought three works to show off their diversity, and the first was entitled Moon over Jupiter and choreographed by one of the founding artistic directors, Dwight Rhoden. 

The curtains lifted to show a darkened stage with a cluster of nine small spotlights high up on the back wall, which seemed, to me, like the light shining through a prison cell grill – though there was, it turned out, no story-line, just pure dance. Three men huddled in the dark, posed in deep lunges as the ponderous loud, thumping chords of Rachmaninov’s piano concerto number 2 began. Then, led by the music, the dancers came vividly to life and, like greyhounds in the slips, geared to chase after a stuffed rabbit, the three men, joined by the company, were off. They set themselves a pace that swelled, speeded and pounded with the music, and the result was effective. Legs flew up in the air past the six o’ clock position; leaps were high and twisted, arabesques leaned dangerously forward until they collapsed like a soufflé into the next move, and there were countless sideways splits. The fourteen dancers flew in and off stage, all throwing themselves into the rhythm of the music but not interpreting it at all – which one would expect, given this romantic, stirring piece. There was no time to contemplate the choreographer’s vision of it being a ‘polyphonic approach to visualize the polyphony itself’, with the dancers moving like Olympic track runners. They raced against Rachmaninov’s forcefully played tempos, which were often given poetic license to allow a ‘stop’ moment. But the sheer power, hyper-activity, to say nothing of the hyper–extensions on offer throughout, demonstrated innate musicality and uniformity, and offered top class style and accuracy. The company offers well pulled-up bodies, incredible flexibility from each and every one of them, and impressive, strong and gracefully presented port de bras. In this piece the girls of varying shapes and sizes were on pointe, often ending up with partners much smaller than themselves. With all the energy expended in the work, it was a relief to finally have the curtain come down, though the next two pieces were just as energetic.

Recur is created by Jae Man Joo, the associate artistic director and ballet master, to a variety of composers and a long silence with only ‘huffing’ noises heard. It has many overtones of Korean traditions and dance and, while yet again on a dark stage, there was a pleasing view of a silhouetted man sitting cross-legged in front of orange back lighting, making artistic actions with his hands and fingers. The couple in front of him dancing in black Kendo full trousers demonstrated control and artistry and were joined by other dances who, as in the earlier piece, showed off their unique stopping action – sliding upright across the floor to their next placing. The piece was long and showed many of the moves that had been seen in the first ballet – but again uniformity and power had to be admired.

The final piece was a complete change of pace – Innervisions, again choreographed by Rhoden, to the music of Stevie Wonder. From the first dancer who wiggled his bottom at the audience in true Cuban style, dressed in white knee pants and red cut off shirt, the anticipation was of a Caribbean dancefest, with all the excitement that brings. But somehow, the piece fell flat in that the dancers performed all the same moves as before – though with smiles on their faces this time – and didn’t quite catch the tropical fever. Dancing to a singer’s words usually means an interpretation of them – as with Christopher Bruce’s Rooster – and here they looked just ‘danced’ – though danced very well. It wasn’t until the finale, which looked like a scene from Fame with the whole company on stage, jumping and waving, that they finally let their hair down and got the audiences clapping in time.