Clap your hands folks, here come the Russians

When Anna Pavlova visited Australia in 1929 (two years before she died), she began her tour in Townsville then travelled by train down the Queensland coast, stopping off at even smaller cities to dance, before arriving at Brisbane.

Her whistle-stop tour was nothing out of the ordinary for the dancer then billed as the greatest the world had ever known.

Pavlova was a workhorse, driven by her de facto husband, Victor Dandre, to dance everywhere from bullrings to school halls to converted cinemas in one night stands all over the world.

She danced her party piece, The Dying Swan, at every performance, condensed three act ballets into one, and instructed her conductors to mangle music scores to suit her own strengths and weaknesses.

The gypsy years of Pavlova came to mind last week as I watched the first performance in a three month Australian season of the Imperial Russian Ballet, a company assembled from a number of ballet schools in Russia.

Whoever put together the so called Festival of Russian Ballet, as the tour is labelled, has followed in the footsteps of Pavlova, hacking into the classical repertoire, adding and subtracting slices of various scores, inserting tacky cabaret acts within a smattering of standard ballet divertissements, and manipulating audiences to clap along with the music.

Presented in Australia and New Zealand by the Hutchison Entertainment group, which has toured them in Australia before, the company’s dancers travel with recorded music, hideous backcloths and a rudimentary lighting plot.

The top ticket price is around $95 in main cities, and about $10 less in smaller cities.

The tour takes in 19 Australian cities and 15 in New Zealand, and ends on 20 November.

In the next few weeks they will dance in Ipswich (for one night and the theatre is sold out), Brisbane, Toowoomba, Maryborough, Caloundra, the Gold Coast, Mackay and Rockhampton before moving to Western Australia, then on to South Australia, Victoria, back to New South Wales, then Queensland again, ending in Townsville, where Pavlova began in 1929.

The Sydney audience seemed energised by the performance, yet I wondered if this was their first or perhaps second dance experience. Did the words “Russian ballet” tempt them to pay close to $100 a ticket? Did they believe they were seeing the cream of the ballet world?

Michael Edgley and Andrew Guild, who once toured Russian ballet companies throughout Australia, stopped doing so years ago when they thought that the magic of “Russian ballet” had been trashed by too many tours of scratch troupes with no pedigree.

In this case, the dancers were more than adequate and in some cases, showed sound technique and impressive attack. The dancers who performed the lead roles of Basilio, Kitri, the Street Dancer and the toreador, Espada, in Don Quixote were technically strong and appealing.

But the program. Where to start?

Act One, as it was billed, was a cut down version of the ballet Don Quixote. Or, in the words of the advertising: “Former Bolshoi soloist and head of the Imperial Russian Ballet Company, Gediminas Taranda, has taken the four acts of the original ballet with its gradual evolution and transformed it into one impetuous act”.

The first of two scenes is a rough approximation of the second scene of Act One in the traditional ballet. The second is an incomprehensible jumble set in a tavern.

Don Quixote and his sidekick, Sancho Panza, make their appearances, but don’t expect any narrative along the lines of the Don falling in love with the heroine, Kitri, believing she is his ideal woman, Dulcinea. There is no enchanted garden either, and no wedding but there is the flash and drama of the traditional ballet’s final grand pas de deux.

As for windmills, are you kidding?

Apart from the hectic fan flapping and cape waving, the most irritating aspect of this “impetuous act” was the sign (by Kitri’s dad, Lorenzo), for the audience to clap in time with the music. They did.

A 20 minute interval was followed by “Act Two” – Bolero, not the Maurice Bejart version with the woman, or man, on the central table, but one (I think) choreographed by a certain N. Androsov who was trained as a folk dancer and worked with Igor Moiseyev’s Folk Dance Company.

A cross between a witches’ dance at midnight and Scheherazade, it was danced in a coal black setting set in black and gold costumes. It made Bejart’s much better-known version look good.

With “Act Three” came the diverts and a mixed bunch they were. It began with a jolly jockey and horse dance to the William Tell Overture, and included an excruciating Ne me quitte pas by Jacques Brel, (also a fave with the boys in Rock the Ballet), The Dying Swan (with floor lighting effects), and pas de deux from Giselle Act Two and Le Corsaire.

I was in a mellow mood after the sensitively danced Giselle and Corsaire pas de deux but then came the finale, titled Can Can Surprise, choreographed (to the Offenbach music), by Nikolai Anokhine a soloist from Igor Moiseyev’s Folk Dance company,

The surprise? The dancer that hogged the stage, mugging like Jack Lemmon in Some Like It Hot, but not so subtly, was a man in drag.

This company is on the road, showing people in centres where the Australian Ballet and Royal New Zealand Ballet do not go, what classical ballet – imperial no less – is all about.

Is this a good idea or bad? In my opinion, if you or your children are curious about the art form, I’d recommend saving up for a ticket and train trip to a capital city to see the national companies in just one performance of a classical ballet.