Russian National Ballet
High Wycombe Swan, November 26th
I guess there are two ways to approach attending a performance of the Nutcracker. If you expect to see the wonderful production of Peter Wright danced by the BRB as I have for the past three years at the Birmingham Hippodrome, you can only be disappointed by anything else since it such a well-designed and beautifully danced production. However, if you approach the Russian National Ballet version knowing that a touring company presenting the 'Big 3' in rapid succession cannot be expected to produce special effects and large-scale décor and props to the same extent, you won't be disappointed.
By 'Big 3", I mean Swan Lake/Sleeping Beauty/Nutcracker. The RNB have embarked on a British tour that no British company would ever dare do nowadays: 56 performances are scheduled between November 12 and December 30th. The last location is Cardiff where for 8 days, they will dance both a matinee and evening performance! (I can't see the Royal Ballet doing that, oops sorry couldn't help it)
Trog recently posted a thorough review of performances in Wolverhampton and I must say that it is unfortunately right on the dot. I think the RNB are a fine touring company, the women are technically sound, have a pure and uncluttered line, the men are a bit weaker with a tendency to not point their feet. However, the 'suspension of belief' that is required to make any live performance credible was totally one-sided i.e. the dancers conveyed absolutely no sense of wonder that this story was unfolding around them and the audience had to work hard to make up for that. The prologue and Act 1 were danced well, but the dancers made me feel that "da, this is my job, I dance and I don't really listen to this incredible music, I just count my way through". By Act 2, the situation was much improved with more vigorous dancing that remained very 'safe' i.e. no one was overdoing the pirouettes or the balances.
The choreography was lovely with clear steps, yet not very 'meaty' and danced as I mentioned very safely. The entire company are Russian, mostly it seems from the provinces or the lesser Moscow schools, yet are similar is style. The principals were Natalia Kungurtseva as Marie and Khassan Ousmanov as the Prince. The pair were either very new to one another (as some supported pirouettes and other tricks were off balance) or upset with one another. The Prince had a lovely supple technique and excellent elevation and just ate up the stage spacewise. He was really into the role, but unfortunately his Marie was losing interest in him as the evening progressed. I think she might have fancied the four attendants helping her through the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy: the traditional music for this pas de deux was used as a dance for Marie and her Prince. The segment turned into a bizarre Rose Adagio goes North section, with these four attendants helping out and the Prince more or less watching and doing little. The 'National' Dances were all pas de deux except for the French which was a pas de trois: they were danced adequately and the dancers were very involved in Act 2, even joining in the Waltz of the Flowers, probably to supplement the 8 corps and their attendants (pining for Marie it seems). I nearly forgot the Mouse King: there was a mouse king.
Finally, the orchestra and conductor were to be commended. I thought they played this unusually arranged score very well and with feeling. I say unusual because the score had to be adapted for the 31 musicians (with one flutist doubling as pianist for the Sugar Plum Fairy solo) and for the lack of choir in the Snowflake section. The sets and costumes were colourful and adequate, with the Party scene designed in a novel blend of Jacobean-Georgian dress with Victorian hairstyles. The attention to detail however was poor and I think that is what contributes to the amateur feel to the performance: not all women and men were wearing make-up, the women retained their rings, various nail colours and multiple earrings (yes, the five gold loops in your lobe do catch the light when you dance the role a boy in the Party scene), the chairs in the party scene should not be the dirty mismatched ones obviously belong to the Swan Theatre, some of the wigs were combed, others not.
Overall this review doesn't sound very positive, but I had an enjoyable evening. It's a case of the Russians needing to be careful with their promises and the goods they deliver: the advertising/program uses words like Russian, Bolshoi, St-Petersburg and some of the audience know what to expect from this. However, the final product on stage would not even pass as a dress rehearsal at either the Bolshoi or Kirov theatres. This particular audience (composed of mostly children and parents) was quite pleased as judged by the applause. My situation is that having had the joy of seeing the real thing many times in London and elsewhere, I have developed an eye for excellence and so anything else just won't do.