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April 07, 2005

Manon and Anna Karenina - Ballet in London and St. Petersburg

Posted by David Conway

Music: Massenet; Choreography: Kenneth MacMillan
Royal Ballet, Covent Garden, London
22nd February 2005

Anna Karenina (World Premiere)
Music: Tchaikovsky; Choreography: Boris Eifman
Eifman Ballet Company
Conservatory Theatre, St. Petersburg
2nd April 2005

It was of course opera rather than ballet that Dr Johnson condemned as an "exotic and irrational entertainment", but had he lived a hundred years later in the heyday of classical ballet I fancy that words would have failed even him to express its shortcomings as an art form. Of course a lot may be forgiven if the dancers themselves are attractive, but for one like myself, who does not know his entrechat from his battement, the technical side seems arcane and exclusive.

Of course my problem, having been brought up as an opera aficionado, is that I approach ballet from music, not from gymnastics. In opera, when those on stage become tiresome or the production is ludicrous, one can shut one's eyes and the words, or expression of the singing voice, together with the music, can generally carry on the story line without any great problem. The same does not apply in ballet, where (unless one is listening to Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky or Prokofiev) the music tends to be less than engaging and the bumps of the leads landing give little hint of the plot. One has willy-nilly to watch the dancers and attempt to divine who is doing what to whom; the formulaic movements of classical ballet do not always make this easy. Often it takes till the end of the first act to get the hang of what is going on, even with the aid of a programme.

Thus it was with me at the recent revival of Kenneth MacMillan's highly-praised staging of Manon to the music of Massenet. Not, you understand, using the music of Massenet's opera Manon Lescaut, but using music from almost everything else Massenet wrote, from his Scènes pittoresques to Thaïs. As all Massenet's music is pretty wet, this probably made little difference from a musical point of view, but I suppose it might be claimed that the opera-setting at least has some emotional cohesion and supports the developing story-line; whereas these assorted bits and pieces had less dramatic coherence than a mix by Fatboy Slim. The opening scene at an inn, for example, was jolly enough, but who on earth were all these people, which (if any) of them were relevant to the plot, and which of them were just filling in sixteen or thirty-two bars on a 'vamp till ready' basis?

Eventually the mists cleared so that one could be certain as to who was Des Grieux (Carlos Acosta), Manon (Tamara Rojo), her brother Lescaut (Jose Martin) and the sinister Mr G. M. (William Tuckett). They all went through their paces in a most praiseworthy manner; as you will gather I cannot help you with anything technical here, although the swoony prose at balletomane sites will give you as much as you want and more on that topic.

But what was totally missing was the slightest sense of characterisation by the principals. Des Grieux is, as I remember the story, a serious student who finds himself erotically obsessed with Manon. This obsession is in itself a warping of his intellectuality. Acosta is incontestably handsome, virile, lithe and athletic - but if he is at university he is clearly there to buck up the sports team rather than expecting a first. Similarly Rojo is indubitably beautiful – but Manon surely needs to display some sexual power and predation on her own part, not to be presented as a doll flipped back and forth like an erotic shuttlecock. I know Rojo and Acosta are great stars and we are lucky to have them at the Royal Ballet and all that, but for this punter the only dancing that really packed a punch was Martin's (who had a terrific drunk routine), although I must also credit Tuckett's chilling creepiness.

Even if all of them had emoted their socks off, however, I doubt that I could have been deeply moved. MacMillan's staging militates against such involvement. The book he devised is not much more than a succession of events, selected so as to give the traditional opportunities to the various leads and ensembles, - a card game, a fight, the docks at New Orleans, etc. etc. - and the music chosen gives an anodyne support to these. No real difference therefore from the ballet libretti of two hundred years ago; what we see is a danced vaudeville or pantomime, like a serious La fille mal gardée, a very superior entertainment, certainly, but ignoring everything we have learned in the meantime from Wagner or Ibsen about the emotional power of theatre, or from other choreographers about how to transform the classical ballet traditions to generate that power.

I had greater hopes – and they were fulfilled – of Eifman's version of Anna Karenina. Eifman is one of the lone wolves of ballet; having worked with all the major Russian ballet companies he set up his own troupe in 1977. It has no permanent base (yet) in Russia; indeed during its first decade it was clearly hoped by the powers that were that Eifman, who is held by many pundits to defile the purity of Russian ballet traditions, would leave the country. It thus spends much of its time abroad – this production of Karenina will be touring the US later this year.

Karenina, which focuses entirely on the central emotional triangle of the novel, pulls no emotional punches. By using the work of Tchaikovsky – including extracts from the symphonies, the Serenade for Strings, and the fantasy-overture 'Romeo and Juliet' - Eifman takes a calculated risk. This intense and passionate music is well-known and inevitably already carries many evocations for the listener.

But the dramatic force and invention of the choreography, and its superb realisation by Eifman's company, carries all before it. Unlike the music chosen for Manon, that for Karenina has clearly been specifically and boldly selected to intensify the impact of the piece. There is the added bonus of the incomparable grace and defiance of gravity which seems the birthright of Russian dancers. They are, in this department, as far above the Royal Ballet as the Royal Ballet are above me (and that is a long, long, way).

There is no doubt from the micro-second first exchange of glances between Vronsky (the very dashing Yury Smekalov) and Anna (the striking Maria Abashova) that we are locked into an intense tragedy, which unfolds in a series of dramatically compelling scenes, including some unforgettable solos for Eifman's lead dancer Albert Galchanin, conveying the suffering of Karenin.

The corps de ballet give immaculate support, notably in scenes conveying Vronsky's raucous barrack companions and in the final tableau. The details of this I shall not give away in the hope that this production will come to the UK and that you will go and see it. I have suspicion that the ballet critics may howl, but you will undoubtedly be as dazzled and appreciative as the expert audience was here in St. Petersburg.

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