The perfect first step into the world of ballet
The Russian ballet tradition is, rightly, famed the world over. The country's two leading companies, the Bolshoi and Mariinsky (formerly Kirov) are both more than two centuries old and both have had ballets written for them by dozens of illustrious composers and choreographers.
The great composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky wrote musical scores for The Nutcracker (as well as Sleeping Beauty) for the Mariinsky, and Swan Lake for the Bolshoi: and these two great ballets visit Bristol this month, performed by a somewhat more recent arrival on the Russian ballet scene: the Russian State Ballet of Siberia.
A swooningly romantic tale of love, transformation and inner beauty, Swan Lake was created by Tchaikovsky and choreographer Julius Reisinger from Russian folk tales, and tells the story of Odette, a princess turned into a swan by an evil sorcerer's curse. From the impressive splendour of the palace ballroom to the moonlit lake where swans glide in perfect formation, this compelling tale of tragic romance has it all: exquisite ensemble pieces, memorable pas de deux and breath-taking solos. It also boasts, in the twin role of Odile – the temptress in black tulle who seduces the Prince – and Odette, the pure white swan queen, one of ballet's most remarkable technical challenges.
The Nutcracker, meanwhile, is a magical, family-friendly fantasy ballet that begins as night falls on Christmas Eve. As midnight strikes, we are swept away to a fairytale world where nothing is quite as it seems. Toy dolls spring to life, the Mouse King and his army battle with the Nutcracker Prince and we travel through the Land of Snow to an enchanted place where the magic really begins.
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The Russian State Ballet is a state-run company that tours with its own orchestra. Most of its dancers are graduates of the choreography school in Krasnoyarsk, Siberia's third city and the Ballet's home. Founded in 1981, the Ballet is now embarking on its 11th UK tour. And, as the company's international head of touring Sergei Selivanov explains, the RSB draws on the traditions of its two illustrious forebears. "The Bolshoi and Mariinsky stand alone above all other Russian companies. Most modern Russian companies follow the traditions of the Russian classical ballet in choreography and staging, and this is what audiences in the West expect."
Russia has an extraordinary ballet tradition – but is the art form still thriving in its motherland? "Soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union there was a time when the arts, and ballet in particular, were a low priority for Russians," Sergei recalls. "Now, though, Russian ballet is back on its feet and is as much in demand as ever. The government invests money into new productions, and theatres have funds to invite talented choreographers for new productions. And dancers are being decently paid – which keeps them motivated."
An evening at the ballet is, says Sergei, a truly magical event – and a classical production like this is as good a place as any to start your ballet journey.
"The most entertaining classical ballets are those that tell great stories, usually adapted from popular fairy tales, and both Swan Lake and Nutcracker fall into that group."
Ballet is an art form not much known or experienced by most of us – but those who do know it love it fiercely.
"Ballet occupies a peculiar position in the public consciousness," says Sergei. "It has fascinated people for centuries, inspiring Impressionist portraits and Hollywood films and drawing crowds to the world's biggest opera houses and concert halls.
"Yet, as art, it remains oddly inaccessible and mysterious in a way that few other disciplines manage. Those who regularly attend the ballet are a select group, and to outsiders the mechanics of what dancers do remain inscrutable – like watching a sport whose rules you don't understand.
"Painting, photography, installation, literature – even film and music – all seem 'doable' to audiences. But ballet still remains out of reach. The jetés, the pirouettes, even the simplest of arabesques will always be well beyond the physical abilities of the average spectator. They require not just decades of training and vast reserves of self-discipline, but also a talent of the highest order."