Review: Mariinsky/Kirov Ballet in Forysthe programme: Steptext, Approximate Sonata, The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude, In the Middle Somewhat Elevated at Sadler's Wells

Performance: 13 & 14 Oct 08
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Tuesday 14 October 2008

Mariinsky Ballet, William Forsythe 'In the middle, somewhat elevated' Photo: Razina

Since this is the Mariinsky Ballet’s 276th Season and Sadler’s Wells has long been the London host to the dancers of the world, it’s remarkable that this fabulous company has never graced the Wells stage before. Like a train spotter getting every steam engine in the world but somehow missing ‘The Flying Scot’sman – but this wrong has now thankfully been righted.

To be fair, this was far from being the full ensemble, the bulk of which has recently been performing in Orange County, California, but the 20 or so dancers on show here give us the full flavour of the greatness of these remarkable dancers. Orange County got the wholesome classical virtuosity of *Don Quixote* but this presentation of their William Forsythe repertory stretched the dancers’ exquisite Vaganova-schooled techniques to the limit. It was, in fact, the same Forsythe programme enjoyed on their visit to Covent Garden in 2005. Then, it seemed quickly sandwiched as a bit of contemporary filling between the full-length classics; here, as a classy opening to the Wells’ *Focus on Forsythe* retrospective, there is time for the work to breathe and for our consciousness to fully absorb these precision-tooled bodies mastering choreography that elongates, exaggerates and tightens their classic ballet vocabulary.

It’s tough to arrive in London one day, and then perform – on a strange stage – the most complex and onerous contemporary dance imaginable, in sparse costumes that leave no room to hide errors. To be fair, some rustiness was apparent, notably in the middle pairing of *Approximate Sonata* and the joyful, parody/homage to Balanchine in *The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude*, elements of which were not as crisply executed as we might expect. This is, however, bordering on the churlish since the overall excellence of the programme meant that the usual quick exodus of critics and other VIPs at the first-night curtain call seemed even more mean-spirited than usual. The brilliance of the whole ensemble in the fiendishly difficult closing work, *In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated*, where the final duet between Irina Golub (the fastest rising star in St Petersburg) and Mikhail Lobukhin contained all the heady thrills of exactitude that Forsythe at his best can command. I was also, not for the first time, fascinated by the musicality, charisma and surprising hyper-flexibility of Elena Sheshina, a woman who doesn’t conform to the skeletal, identikit extremes expected of today’s ballerinas but who could dance the socks off most (note to British vocational ballet schools – the ability to dance is more important than body shape alone).

The pulsating emotion of this brilliant end game had been foretold by Ekaterina Kondaurova’s dynamic leadership of her three partners (Igor Kolb, Lobukhin and Alexander Sergeyev) in the rehearsal-room episodes of the opening work, Steptext. The opening sequence of three dancers consecutively reaching in every direction to occupy the full bubble of space around them, with their feet firmly planted in one wide, open position, seems to me to sum up Forsythe’s obsessive exploration of the kinaesthetic space around the body. *Steptext* _ (and to a lesser extent _*Approximate Sonata*) is also a fascinating academic exercise in deconstruction, as Forsythe plays with the audience’s conventional judgements of theatre by bringing the house lights up unexpectedly and regularly breaking the flow of the accompanying Bach music.

The focus moves onto Balanchine (with the bonus of a little contemporary gem from Alexei Ratmansky) for the latter part of the week before the Mariinsky Opera takes the stage at the weekend. It’s taken 276 years to get them here so Sadler’s Wells is making the most of this one fantastic week.

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