Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, UK; November 6, 2014
I actually saw my first ever ballet performance in Coventry, by the then London Festival Ballet (now English National Ballet) at the long-gone Coventry Theatre. These days the city doesn’t get to see much classical dance, save for occasional visits by companies such as Moscow Ballet La Classique, made up largely of dancers who trained in Russia, and who this year brought an early taste of Christmas with an often pleasing “Nutcracker” that warmed the audience on a damp and dark November evening.
The production is an adaptation of Vasily Vainonen’s still widely danced 1934 version in which, among other things, he changed the role of Clara from a young child to an adolescent so an adult could dance the part. It is a solid telling of the story. The Act I party takes place in the Silberhaus’ grand living room with its colourful red, gold and blue drapes, and where everyone is dressed up to the nines. Somewhat unusually, company founder and director Elik Melikov originally made his name through manufacturing sets and costumes, including for such noted clients as the Bolshoi Ballet and Danish Royal Ballet. It shows. His costumes do a cracking job of making those playing teenagers look like teenagers, and his gowns for the ladies are gorgeous.
Nadejda Ivanova was a delightful and believable Clara. Whether as the teenager she really was, or the Sugar Plum Fairy of her dreams, she was full of grace and ease. She shone in both pas de deux, especially in the Act II grand pas, where her fouettés were all right on the spot. Her ovation at the end was well-deserved. As one would expect given how often they must dance together, Ivanova looked perfectly at home with her Prince, the rather good-looking Aleksandr Tarasov, who danced and partnered absolutely solidly, save for one unfortunate slip at the end of a solo.
Elsewhere, some of the characters could have done with more depth. The sometimes emotionless acting and mime struggled to make much impact. Andrey Shalin’s Drosselmayer was a bland magician with little presence. Maybe he used it all up on his life-sized dolls, all excellent, especially Maxim Marenin as the Saracen, who showed off some fine leaps and turns.
Presence was also lacking when it came to Dimitry Smirnov’s Mouse King in the battle with the soldiers at the start of Clara’s dream, although his rather lacking black catsuit of a costume hardly helped. Neither he nor his mouse followers (also in black catsuits) looked remotely villainous. The smart use of smoke and lights fails to disguise the weak choreography that involves a lot of posturing and little actual combat. Scary and frightening were not adjectives that immediately sprung to mind.
Against a suitably wintry backdrop, the snowflakes included some pleasing patterns, plenty of clean lines and were certainly together. It was just a shame that they sounded so noisy on the Belgrade’s hard stage.
Act II’s Confiturembourg (The Land of the Sweets) takes place back in the family’s home. After the Mouse King has been finally dispatched – having him reappear helps link matters to the first half in a way that is not always the case – five pairs of dolls come to life for the divertissements. All were nicely danced, although most impressive were the Russian Dolls of Olena Antsupova and Marenin who were full of swagger and panache. The Oriental pair were also full of Eastern delight. The subsequent Waltz of the Flowers is enlivened and given extra colour and numbers by the five doll couples joining in.
It is easy to knock privately-run touring ensembles such as Moscow Ballet La Classique, now fast approaching its 25th anniversary. Long tours with just about all the 27 dancers in every show, and the company moving on after just a few performances, must take their toll. Opportunities for rehearsal must be severely limited, meaning standards are not always what they might be. A never-ending cycle of dancing just a few classics with familiar titles can’t do too much for the performers either.
But companies like these do bring ballet to venues that often don’t see a lot of dance of any sort; venues that British ballet companies have long given up on, for financial and other reasons. Their productions are unashamedly popularist and traditional, but that’s what a lot of people want and expect. The Coventry audience certainly lapped up what was a pleasant and enjoyable evening. And who knows, the experience may even persuade a few of them to make the trip to Birmingham in a few weeks for an altogether deeper and more lavish version of the tale.