When the Mariinsky travels abroad, they can trade off a gigantic reputation, a reputation of such historical magnitude that their audiences always will be, like Mr Darcy, ready, eager and indeed determined to be pleased. For all that I too attended in such a state of mental excitement, cherishing vivid memories of their visits to Dublin when I was child. I was, I confess, somewhat disappointed. Had my demands from ballet changed as I matured? One does not cavil at the Mariinsky’s bravura, at the grand set pieces, at the polished technique, at the evidence of a rich and confident tradition displayed in supple bodies and poised presentation. When they are showing off balletic velocity and collective synchronicity, there are few indeed to match them. Still tonight's Raymonda, their first engagement in the USA this season, palled rather in its entirety and I was left feeling rather unsatisfied.

Oxana Skorik © Natasha Razina
Oxana Skorik
© Natasha Razina

In fairness, the story of Raymonda isn’t much to write home about, but then many ballet stories aren’t. Aristocratic girl misses aristocratic boy, away crusading. Foreign rival – a Saracen no less – comes along and tries to abduct her. Boy comes back in the nick of time, kills the rival, and everyone therefore lives happily ever afterwards, in endogamous and national Hungarian bliss. And as far as the Mariinsky’s treatment of it was concerned, the story was indeed a banal canvas on which to do impressive physical things. There was mime narration of the most unsophisticated kind; I've seen much more done with the same kind of standard narrative material.

And what of the mad, bad and dangerous to know Saracen, performed tonight by Konstantin Zverev? Surely there could have been some pulse here; surely, his presence can lift the ballet and give it an edge. Raymonda must feel some attraction to this swarthy stranger – indeed there is some flirtatious dancing, which indicates an undercurrent of taboo desire. If the Saracen is not danced with passion and sensuality, what little point there is in the story ceases to exist, as the dramatic climax of his killing falls flat. But Zverev was pretty tame. There was plenty of sawing in the air, no real physical fireworks, and no commandeering physicality. He should have been a burning presence in this polite, prettified court. True, he partnered her competently, and towards the end of his thwarted suit, acquired a belated frenzy of movement, but on this occasion his interpretation was, in short, a glaring missed opportunity of both dance and drama.

Raymonda, Oxana Skorik, was a crisply elegant lead. She had polish and poise, and seemed to be one of those dancers born on pointe, more at ease on than off. Her fast passages, in which the orchestra allowed her no leeway, were best of all. Of course, if the principal of the Mariinsky lacked bravura, the ballet world would tremble, and she gave us virtuosity in spades. Was she profound? Not perhaps profound, but there was a moving part in Act I, where her dance is woven together with a violin solo, and in that synthesis between dancer and music, one touched on something below the surface of virtuosity. That could not fail to please. Her partner, Timur Askerov, was suitably poised in his courtly attendances on her: but as for chemistry, they had it not as a pair. Nadezhda Batoeva and Kristina Shapran were dazzlingly speedy adjuncts of the young Countess.

The corps was spirited, although sometimes a little more audible because of this. Act II’s character dances, the Dance of the Drumsticks and the Spanish-style Panaderos Flamencos had heaps of vivacity and ebullience. The last Act, the Apotheosis, contained the requisite visual splendours: folk-ballet à l'hongroise with plenty of stomping and turning.

© Natasha Razina
© Natasha Razina

Sets were of the cruder old-fashioned kind, and here, appears really artificial. Very fitting that the happy pair should ride off into the sunset on tawdry horses, a cliché that fit entirely with the whole. The costumes were, however, most pleasing.

When your dancing is brilliant and your technique is assured, does storytelling really matter? Well, yes, I would argue. Should you be building up a sense of internal emotion and genuine interpersonal dynamics even though the material you’ve got to work on is pretty risible? Again, I would argue in the affirmative. There should be an integrity in storytelling, and somehow the great Mariinsky fell short of this tonight.