Russian State Ballet of Siberia: Swan Lake

Wimbledon Theatre, London
February 23, 2022

Read David Mead on the Russian State Ballet of Siberia’s Cinderella and Snow Maiden.

The Russian State Ballet of Siberia (the home company of the Krasnoyarsk State Opera and Ballet Theatre) are in the middle of a three-month whistle-stop tour of the UK, taking Cinderella, Nutcracker, Romeo and Juliet, Swan Lake and Snow Maiden to theatres up and down the country, often presenting just one performance of each in each venue. For many audiences, it’s the only chance they get to see classical ballet, certainly the big classics, and for that the company should be congratulated.

Swan Lake is one of the works by which companies around the world are measured. Whilst the title itself pretty much guarantees a good turnout, it does invite a lot of scope for comparison, particularly when performing in a major ballet centre such as London.

Elena Svinko and Mercello Pelizzoni
in Swan Lake
Photo M Logvinov

Highlight of Sergey Bobrov’s two-act production this evening in Wimbledon was Elena Svinko’s quite outstanding Odette/Odile. Framed by the severe faces of her swans, she was a shining jewel and quite sublime. She not only has the classic Russian physique of pliant, long limbs and arcing insteps, she knows how to use them in service of the characters. Clearly coached with the greatest of expertise, she truly embodied both roles and was mesmerising. It was a textbook rendition that would not look amiss on the greatest of world stages.

Despite the ensemble being relatively small and this being a cut-down Swan Lake, the stage looked strangely cramped. The men, as equally long-limbed as their female counterparts, simply did not have the space to really move and show themselves at their best. Even so, Marcello Pelizzoni still gave us a rather nervous-looking and slightly exaggerated Siegfried. He was also deprived of the best dancing opportunities by Benno (Georgy Bolsunovsky), who at least made up in part for there sadly being no jester.

The corps are as well-drilled as one expects from a Russian company. With the possible exception of the Spanish, the character dances were beautifully executed too, in spite of some iffy costumes.

The mime is a little clunky with Siegfried’s refusal to marry needlessly repeated twice. He is also presented with a chain of office rather than a crossbow so we are left to imagine that it is his dissatisfaction that leads him to the lake.

Many productions have varied the ballet’s ending. While librettists Vladimir Begichev and Vasily Geltser’s conclusion makes perfect dramatic and narrative sense, it does create something of a train crash of Tchaikovsky’s score and robs us of one of the greatest musical climaxes and one of the most-loved of Petipa’s pas de deux. Assuming that Siegfried has drowned himself in the lake, Odette is given the Act II pas de deux as a solo so that we can be in no doubt that Siegfried has consigned her to a permanent fate as a swan. Unfortunately, this also means that the evening also rather gurgles to halt, drowned in bathos.

Maria Smirnova-Nesvitskaya’s designs are a little on the garish side compared to what we usually see today. Bright colours contrast with drab, biscuit-coloured costumes, neither flattering the dancers. The swans’ tutus seem to comprise a minimum of fabric and look a little like limp lampshades. The projections used instead of a set make perfect sense for a tour. The projections of the lapping waters of the lake work well, but some others are too loud and distract. Animating swans’ wings robs them of their emotional power.

A big plus is that the company comes with a live orchestra, even if its reduced numbers mean the music sounds less rich than it should. Tempi were also agonisingly slow at times, including when there were no dancers to accommodate. There were a couple of moments where the audience sat in embarrassed silence waiting for an entrance too.

It is always a privilege to see smaller companies from Russia but they do face a dilemma. A less ambitious repertoire that does not invite comparison with the big guns might show them in a better light, but equally might not attract audiences. And it has to be said, the Wimbledon audience did lap it up and seemed to go away happy and very satisfied.