White Nights Festival

June 1, 2000

White Nights Festival

Various theaters
St. Petersburg, Russia

June-July, 2000

Reviewed by Clive Barnes

Now in one sense no visit to St. Petersburg – one of the most beautiful cities in the world – can be ill planned. Yet so far as it can be ill planned, my trip to the tail end of this year’s White Nights Festival was (slightly) ill planned. My prime purpose was to see the Maly Ballet (this is St. Petersburg’s “other” major company, after the Kirov Ballet at the Maryinsky) at its own Moussorgsky Theater. Unfortunately a group of its top dancers were off performing in Japan, and I only saw the company in La Sylphide. Also, unlike the old days, opera now tends to dominate these wondrously luminous White Nights, and I caught only one performance – a production of Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon – with the Kirov (itself just briefly home between visits to London’s Covent Garden) at the Maryinsky. There was ballet of a sort elsewhere, but more of that later.

As seen from the Sylphide and the Manon, both the Maly and Kirov troupes are extending the range of their Western repertory. MacMillan’s full-evening Manon was created in 1974, but it has become pretty much a standard work in the West. However, unlike Balanchine’s Jewels, also just absorbed into its repertory, it seemed a strange choice for the Kirov�you would have thought they had sufficient narrative extravaganzas.

Instead of the original Nicholas Georgiadis designs, the Kirov employs the newer, inferior and more realistic settings and costumes by Peter Farmer – also used by the Houston and Australian Ballets. The cast I saw was led by ABT’s Alessandra Ferri matched with the Kirov’s Igor Zelensky, who is familiar with the work from guesting with the Royal Ballet. It is not a ballet I particularly care for – too much story chases too little choreography – but although Ferri was her vibrant self, Zelensky seemed more wooden than when I saw him dance it with the Royal. The rest of the cast, including a lightweight Maxim Khrebtov as Lescaut and an oddly stolid Alexander Kirkov as the villainous Monsieur G.M., danced decently enough, although the ballet was not as generally effective as with, say, American Ballet Tneatre or the Paris Opéra Ballet, not to mention the Royal itself.

I saw the Maly troupe in its pleasantly stylish production of the Danish classic La Sylphide, first mounted for it by Elsa Marianne von Rosen as long ago as 1975. Although charming, it was less dramatically persuasive than we are accustomed to, yet it was stylishly danced and led by two exceptional young dancers, a softly radiant Helen Sheshina and a high-flying Andre Merkuriev.

Today the revitalized St. Petersburg has become a prime tourist town – particularly for visitors sophisticated in dance – and they should beware of some ballet being offered, apart, of course, from the genuine, first-string Kirov and Maly companies. There are many St. Petersburg package tours that offer a ballet performance as part of the deal. Be careful. For example, I saw a Swan Lake at the Imperial Theatre on the Fontanka, one of the city’s loveliest. The ticket actually claimed I was seeing the “Ballet of the Maryinsky Theater,” i. e., the Kirov Ballet. Well, yes and no, for this was a second team led by two dancers recently retired, I think, from full Kirov service: the merely competent Margarita Koulik and Vladimir Kim. The whole faded production looked sadly wilted. There seemed to be bands of Japanese and Korean tourists wandering through the theater, clearly taking it as a unique photo opportunity.

Another Swan Lake, and another photo-op, this time at the splendid Alexandrinsky Theater, which dates from 1832 and is the oldest of St. Petersburg’s imperial theaters proved horrifically worse. It was performed by something calling itself the “Theater of Classical Ballet of Victor Korolkov” with Irina Chistyakova as a routine Odette/Odile partnered, with some degree of welcome energy, by an apparently younger Yuri Petukhov. The company directed by Korolkov, himself a former Kirov dancer had the dance standards and the tatty scenery and costumes that you might ungallantly fear to encounter in a small town somewhere between Omsk and Tomsk.

Although, as one might expect, ballet is alive and well in the new St. Petersburg, the visitor would do well to take care. Also, the prices, modest enough by Western standards, are much cheaper for Russians than for non-Russians. So brush up your Russian and see if you can pass.