Having retired from a specialised role in the Russian army, Konstantin Tachkin returned to his native city of St Petersburg, in 1992, and set up an agency to provide ballet tickets for tourists. He quickly found that demand far exceeded supply and, to fill the gap, decided – with no prior professional knowledge – to set up his own ballet company. 25 years’ later, his company has itself become the purposeful itinerant, touring the world with their old-fashioned versions of the great Russian classical ballets. St Petersburg Ballet Theatre is now so frequently performing somewhere other than St Petersburg that one wonders how Tachkin’s original business model – servicing that city’s tourists – is now satisfied.

The SPBT Swan Lake takes a traditional version of the well-worn narrative, fitting the mid-twentieth century Soviet requirement of a happy ending and counter-balancing the lakeside mysticism with some jester-fuelled fun; employing archetypal, colourful costumes and sets that manage to be both serviceable and attractive. Their performance model is to wrap the whole envelope around the company’s star ballerina, Irina Kolesnikova, bringing in big-name guests both to partner her, and to cover for the shows that she needs to miss. In the early years, the rest of the company tended towards the makeshift.

That was then. Now, the corps de ballet performs to an exacting high standard. The 24 swans in the lakeside “white acts” were well drilled and their harmony of movement – if not, always, of line – was of the highest order. The cygnets’ brief pas de quatre was performed faultlessly. There is no better rehearsal than continuing performances and twice-daily shows over much of the previous week had clearly honed the corps’ unity to this level of excellence.

They had every reason to be so tightly organised, with such harmonised musicality, since rarely have I heard Tchaikovsky’s score played with such sensitivity and vitality as it was here, by the orchestra of the English National Opera. This instantly-recognisable, symphonic score, both magic and majestic, was given the lover’s touch by conductor Vadim Nikitin; caressed in the melancholic, slow sections and energetically encouraged wherever appropriate. One could enjoy this performance for the orchestral excellence alone. The dance was a bonus.

Unfortunately, this was barely the case in a pedestrian first act, largely characterised by simple ensemble steps, performed mechanically and without enthusiasm, and punctuated by a dreary pas de trois. Although, the corps de ballet is now first-class and there is great improvement amongst the company’s female soloists, there are still obvious weaknesses amongst their male counterparts. A notable exception was an impressive account of the mysterious Rothbart by Dmitry Akulinin. 

If act one was dismal, things improved dramatically in the second act. Alongside the excellence of the corps, we were treated to a stunning masterclass by Yulia Stepanova, once of the Mariinsky Ballet, now a principal of the Bolshoi, and the big-name alternate for Kolesnikova in this season. Stepanova personifies the Russian ideal of Odette, the white swan: tall, long-limbed, ultra-graceful, icily-dignified, with long, slender arms that undulate in rippling waves. Many Russian ballerinas have these attributes, but they often come without expressiveness; a criticism that cannot be levelled at Stepanova. Without recourse to mime, she described her enchanted plight to Siegfried, largely with her eyes, and when he finally declares his love for her, it is rewarded with a radiant flash of ecstatic joy.  

It is so difficult to balance out the dual role but Stepanova is equally impactful as Odile. Her black swan is brazenly seductive, but she quickly refreshes the virginal allure of Odette in response to the anguished vision of the latter, which is imperiously dismissed by a swirl of Rothbart’s red-lined cape. It was especially pleasing to see the 32 fouettés performed as flashing singles, concluded by a final swirling double turn. Just a few ballerinas are in the elite league of Odette/Odile presentations (Kolesnikova included) and Stepanova is now right up amongst them.

Her Siegfried was another Bolshoi principal, Alexander Volchkov (and not, as I was expecting, the Mariinsky’s Kimin Kim) and his was an unimpressive, yet secure performance. For the most part, he was an effective foil for Stepanova, presenting her to the best effect with assured partnering; but apparently ill at ease during the character work of act one, and when the chance came – in the third act – to impress with exciting virtuosity, his variation was underwhelming.   

This unreconstructed presentation of the world’s most popular ballet is a winning formula that will, deservedly continue to be loved by people around the globe. It is salutary to note that this large-scale company appears to flourish entirely on its own means and without any state support. Tachkin’s initial parochial vision of satisfying cruise-ship passengers with some passable ballet has been transformed into a unique global achievement.