The success of the antique La Halte de la Cavalerie, which opened Mikhailovsky Ballet’s mixed program really depends on how strong your sense of ballet history is. This is very broad comedy, the sort which requires both a high level of character dancing from the dancers and a deft understanding of balletic mime from the audience. If it isn’t danced with care and deference, the ballet could easily become ridiculous. The company generally proved that it has a strong foundations and presented the ballet with both sincere affection and respect. It only ever was a fluffy piece of entertainment, but a charming one.

In the part of Teresa, Olga Semyonova was beautiful and brilliant, always convincing, and moderated in her acting. Her character dancing is authentic and she owns the stage. Her ability to communicate without words was unmatched here. Semyonova’s flirting with Alexey Malakhov, in the role of the Colonel, was fun to watch as he matched her wit – with well-executed pratfalls and puffed-up pomposity – and she made a fine mockery of all the military officers who made a play for her affections.Less persuasive were the leads, Angelina Vorontsova, as Maria, and Ivan Vasiliev, as Peter. Their pas de deux was marred by some insecure handling and awkward transitions, making it appear as if they were insufficiently rehearsed. They also didn’t seem to have chemistry. However, it’s nearly impossible to dislike Vasiliev. He has a real knack for ingratiating himself into the audience’s good graces. His boyish charm is enough to make you forget his technical shortcomings. He moves with authority and can be a generous partner. An interesting facet of Vasiliev’s appeal is the way he pulls off his tricks. Any trick, if tossed off too nonchalantly, fails to impress by seeming too easy. Vasiliev somehow manages to let you know just how difficult the thing is that he’s doing while simultaneously getting it done, and with room to spare. He really knows how to chew up the scenery. Vorontsova was not quite in his league in this performance. She began a bit wobbly which she she eventually corrected but her mime never really rose to the art of the storyteller. Her catfight clashes with her rival,Teresa, failed to generate the comedy it ought to generate.

In the middle of the program sat Class Concert, a marshmallow of a ballet that sought to make a spectacle out of ballet classroom exercises taken to their extreme. Beginning with adorable children doing pliés, it started out harmlessly enough but kept coming back to bang on the touchstone of cutesiness a few times too many by inserting little skits with the children. The problem with this is that unalloyed cuteness wears thin when overdone, as it was here. The piece was nonetheless an obvious crowd-pleaser, effectively conditioning the audience to clap every time a dancer did more than three of anything in a row. In that sense, it worked. There were thrills enough even for the most jaded observer and you’d only yourself to blame if you didn’t get enough double tours, fouetté turns, soaring grand jetés and the now requisite 540° revoltades. Vasiliev roared through a few times like a bull in a china shop, giving barely a nod to classical form while delivering blistering turns and a triple saut de basque. Natalia Osipova breezed through a few times with astonishing speed and razor sharp jumps – she’s a one woman thrill ride. Leonid Sarafanov did his Herculean human helicopter imitation with at least four double tours in a row. There may have been more than four but it was dizzying even to watch. Class Concert is a show piece of no particular value or meaning other than to let everyone have a chance at the spotlight. Suffice it to say that the Mikhailovsky has a lot of very talented dancers... If this won’t get the fans going then you probably had better pack it in.

Of rather more substance was Nacho Duato’s Prelude. As the first piece he choreographed for the Mikhailovsky, it has the feel of a getting-to-know-you work. The ballet goes back and forth between Duato’s twitchy, contemporary idiom and ballet with the occasional quote from well-known classical standards. It seems as if he was trying to feel out his new dancers so as to see what they were made of. Sarafonov, nominally the lead in this piece, never stopped being a classical dancer in this ballet, the more modern movement seemingly a bit beyond his reach. On the other hand, many of the other company members, the corps de ballet especially, immersed themselves in Duato’s movement and were extraordinarily effective. Especially sharp and wonderful to see in this ballet was Angelina Vorontsova. Being freed from the confines of character had a remarkable effect on her intensity. She was frequently gripping in her attack, yet her dance was interspersed with moments of liquid lyricism. The success of Duato’s ballets depends on sure-handed partnering and the ability to make small gestures significant.There are a lot of lifts in atypical positions which quickly devolve into a wrestling match if not well done (and in these skills lies a clear strength in this company). The many changes of hands and direction were crisp and articulate. The ability to give meaning to small gestures is another integral part of what gives depth to Duato’s ballets. Small touches of grace and tenderness turn his works into opportunities to explore new dimensions of feeling, without narrative, and the dancers seemed to fully embrace the challenge.

Mikhailovsky Ballet is a great company in its own right and shouldn’t be compared to other Russian companies. It is often referred to as St. Petersburg’s second company, second to Mariinsky, and that makes it seem lesser. It’s not a fair comparison as it offers its own, unique pleasures. Hopefully this season, the first one presented here in New York, will lead to future engagements and many more opportunities for us to get to know this fine company better.