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Mikhailovsky Ballet

'Multiplicity, Forms of Silence and Emptiness'

Triple Bill

by Stuart Sweeney

April 5 and 7, 2013 -- London Coliseum, London, UK

The Mikhailovsky Ballet is already a firm favourite in London, bringing work we haven't seen here before, such as the restaging of Vakhtang Chabakuani's “Laurencia” and Petipa's “The Cavalry Halt”, as well as the more familiar classics from the Russian ballet rep. Nacho Duato took up the role of Artistic Director of the company at the start of 2011 and has introduced his own work, primarily in a contemporary style, alongside the traditional fare. Seeing the company in magnificent form on this trip in classical ballet provides evidence that there has been no erosion of their high standards in that regard. Indeed, with the recruitment of Natalja Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev, whose stellar performances can be seen as lifting the whole company to new heights.

With two programmes of his own works in this Coliseum season, London had a chance to see how they perform a more contemporary style. In the event, they revelled in it with several artists impressing. Given Duato's long association with NDT, a company recruiting ballet-trained artists to dance contemporary work, it's perhaps unsurprising that Duato was able to make the company look so good in his work.

Multiplicity, Forms of Silence and Emptiness was first performed in 1999 by the Deutsches Nationaltheater in Weimar who commissioned Duato with the brief to make a ballet directly related to Weimar. The composer, Bach, was his chosen subject and we hear extracts from no less than 22 of his works, as well as the figure of Bach himself acting as a linking motif through many of the short scenes. As Bach, Marat Shemiunov commands the stage. The format of short scenes is a recurring format for Duato as is humour and this was a performance where I was grinning for much of the time. Dancers representing instruments is explored. Sabina Yapparova sits on Bach's knees and together they animatedly move to the prelude from Cello suite No.1. Next a woman as a harpsichord is “played” and at the end folded up and carried off. More sombre is the presence of a dark figure in a crinoline, played with arresting quality by Polina Semionova. There are different interpretations: wife, death; certainly she is antagonistic to his muse, although a reconciliation is achieved. A relatively bare stage has an intricate metal walkway on several levels at the back, designed by Jaffar Chalabi, and the final moving scene sees all the dancers slowly lining up to pay hommage to the body of the composer. Multiplicity...is an intriguing work and one I would like to see again to delve deeper into the meaning.

Overall, the triple bill was less successful choreographically, but showed no less commitment from the dancers. The high spot for me was Nunc Dimittas, from the work of the same name by Arvo Pärt. Opening with dramatic shafts of light high above the stage, designed by Brad Fields, Ekaterina Borchenko, Duato's acknowledged muse for this work, moves with a reverential elegance to Pärt's magnificent sacred music. With combinations of black tunics for the men and volumous, red skirts for the women in the corps, Duato varies the combinations in his cast of 15 to retain our interest. In Without Words, created in 1998 for ABT, the unchanging pace of Schubert's wordless songs, combined with beige costumes for all, creates a monotonous even if attractive movement. You almost feel that Duato is paying too much respect to the dancers' classical training. For Prelude, Duato describes, “The meeting of classical ballet and contemporary dance – two very different worlds, striving for mutual awareness and understanding...” After a contemporary opening we have a middle section on pointe, but neither form delivers great satisfaction – Duato seems at his best in a world of high drama or humour. The most successful element is the solo dancing at regular intervals of Leonid Sarafanov, moving with pace and precision through everything that the choreographer can throw at him.

In August 2014, after Vladimir Malakhov’s contract expires, Duato will become Director of the Staatsballett Berlin, and will give up his role as Artistic Director of the Mikhailovsky Ballet after 1 February 2014, although he will remain as Resident Choreographer. While it is clearly a great temptation to work with the gifted dancers of fine ballet companies, I can't help wondering if Duato wouldn't produce more emotionally charged and dynamic work with a contemporary company. However, the enthusiasm of the Mikhailovsky dancers for his style shows suggests that they have benfited and will continue to enjoy this additional dimension of dance.

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