The last few days of a long and busy tour may not seem to be the ideal time to see a touring ballet company far from home, but the two visits I made to Norwich Theatre Royal to see The Russian State Ballet of Siberia this week suggest otherwise.
I caught the Snow Maiden on Monday evening and Romeo and Juliet on Wednesday. The two works show a contrasting approach to presenting these popular Russian works, while Snow Maiden was traditionally presented and breathtakingly pretty their Romeo and Juliet was a far more dramatic and modern take on this Prokofiev favourite.
Both works featured a large, open and simple set allowing maximum space for the dancers with a large back projection screen defining the location of each scene. I rather liked the backdrops, they had the colour and vibrancy of old fashioned hand painted colour postcards. In Snow Maiden they showed the traditional elegant and detailed wooden houses and churches of Siberian forest villages, and looked to me like they could have been the inspiration for the vertiginous design of the filmed Hogwarts. In Romeo and Juliet we are swept around the palazzos and courtyards of Venetian Verona with equally charming and elegant designs. The backdrops appear to be static, until you realise there is movement within. Very effective but not intrusive in the way that some modern theatre tech is.
Snow Maiden is a charming folk tale that Tchaikovsky turned into a memorable ballet score. The Snow Maiden (Elena Lapina) lives with her Father Frost and dances happily with her friendly snowflakes, but yearns for human company and love. So she runs off to the nearby village of Berendeyevka and finds them celebrating Shrovetide and catches the eye of handsome young shepherd Lel (Daniil Kostylev). Meanwhile a young merchant, Mizgir (Ivan Karnaukhov) arrives and soon chooses Kupava (Elena Svinko) as his bride. But when he spots the Snow Maiden his head is turned and when she leaves the village he spurns Kupava and follows the Snow Maiden deep into the forest.
The perplexed Snow Maiden calls upon her mother Spring (Anastasiia Belonogova) who pops up from a river surrounded by flowers, as you do. Mother grants her the ability to love but says keep out of the sunlight please. So off the Maiden goes into the arms of Mizgir until the inevitable ray of sunshine scuppers the whole damn thing. She melts, he lobs himself off a cliff.
Back in the village of Berendeyevka Lel (who fancied the Snow Maiden) and Kupava (who thought Mizgir was keen on her) have a dance and get together. Life goes on…
The four principals in this production were all superb, and were well supported by all the other dancers in creating a beautiful magical fairytale world. The breadth of detail in the choreography and the contrast between the elegant principal costumes and the pastel shades of the villagers helped to tell story very clearly and engagingly. A delightful version of a classic ballet.
Prokovief’s Romeo and Juliet benefits from a story that few will not recognise and understand, but his version gives a bit more quality time together to the struggling lovers from warring families than Shakespeare did. For those who have seen the Siberian company before this is a radical production that takes on ideas from the best of contemporary dance, and gives us a masterpiece of modern ballet. It is a startlingly good show that fills the theatre stage with life, colour, sex and death.
Romeo (Yury Kudryavtsev) is lean and winsome and plays the troubled lover well, his Juliet (Ekaterina Bulgutova) is very inch the troubled and beautiful heroine. They work well together as their dance tells the world of their urgent young passionate love for each other. But they are beset by the generations long clash between their families, the Montagues and Capulets, who have a bloodthirsty feud consuming their every waking hour.
The end is as sure as the tale is popular, but along the way we have a wonderful spectacle of dance and colour and masked intrigue and courtly display. On a stage filled with complex and diverting scenes one dancer stood out for me – Elena Svinko as Juliet’s mother Lady Capulet, while the four tumbling musical friends of Romeo are never less than wonderful. The stage is filled from time to time with the Death Heralds, who leave little doubt about their purpose in the tale. Unlike the Snow Maiden, this production features a more modern approach to costume and choreography which adds a lot to the pleasure for the audience. It is a physical and sexy show that bursts with passion, pride and confusion with all the urgency of young lovers who recognise no bounds.
This Romeo and Juliet shows that the Siberians have lost their demure chill and given us a powerful Russian take on this classic Shakespeare tale of love and death drawing on some of the best of more modern dance works. This tour may have ended, but The Russian State Ballet of Siberia have guaranteed tonight that we will be looking forward to their next visit to Norwich.
© Julian Swainson 2018