Recently my Dad gave me a real treat: he took me out to see The Imperial Russian Ballet’s ‘Festival of Russian Ballet’ at the Whanganui Opera House. With the tag-line ‘if you only see one ballet in a lifetime, make it ‘A Festival of Russian Ballet’, they were certainly confident in what they had to offer, and over the course of the three-hour performance they delivered.
The first act was a one-hour adaptation of ‘Don Quixote’, and it was the only part of the festival about which I feel I have any cause for complaint: in focussing on the ensemble pieces, Don Quixote was relegated to the background and his story-line, which is the focus of both the original ballet and the book on which it is based, was lost. Which is not to say that the ballet itself wasn’t a pleasure to watch (I particularly enjoyed the gypsy bitch-fight, enhanced by the long, flamenco-style dresses of the two dancers), but I did feel it rather sacrificed the point.
The second act was Ravel’s ‘Bolero’, and was something I was particularly eager to see. I’m happy to report that I wasn’t disappointed: Bolero was Modernism done well, and while the programme (which, incidentally, cost an exorbitant $20) observes that Ravel was inspired by a visit to a large industrial factory it’s hard to miss the Oriental influences, typical of the time, which permeate the performance. The enthroned Godhead was adorned with a headpiece reminiscent of the Egyptian pharaohs, the skirts of the dancers swirled in a manner not dissimilar to the robes of the Sufi mystics, and the flowing, synchronised movements of the dancers seemed at times almost like tai chi set to music. While the central theme of a group united in worship is something Bolero shares with The Rite of Spring, which premiered just a few years before Bolero, it’s a very different and, to me at least, far more appealing work.
The third act was a selection of short pieces, some standalones and others highlights from famous ballets. The focus was clearly on crowd-pleasers, and the crowd, including myself, was duly pleased. There were several famous pas de deux – from ‘Le Corsaire’ and ‘Giselle’ – and the solo ‘The Dying Swan’, originally the signature-piece of Anna Pavlova. Shostakovich’s ‘Russian Waltz’ and the contemporary ‘Dance of the Horses’, inspired by the Melbourne Cup and set to Rossini’s ‘William Tell Overture’, gave the ensemble another chance to shine, as did the grand finale, a hilarious take on Offenbach’s Can Can, which had us all laughing and clapping along.
While it made for a late night out in the middle of the week, A Festival of Russian Ballet was also a great night out, and a highlight not only of my week but probably of my year. It really was amazing.