“ Moscow City Ballet UK Tour: February 14-19 2012: Royal Derngate Theatre, Northampton. „
~The year of doing new things~
It's easy to get into a rut and stop doing new things. Taking my inspiration from the Radio 4 programme 'I've never seen Star Wars' in which celebrity guests are challenged to do things they've not done before, I decided that 2012 would be the year in which I had a go at a range of things I'd not tried before. My husband agreed that we should get out and try some new things and he was responsible for picking ballet by getting tickets for the Moscow City Ballet's UK tour, specifically for their performance of Swan Lake at the Derngate Theatre in Northampton in February 2012. When he handed over the tickets on Christmas Day, I was surprised by the choice since I'd never expressed any particular interest in seeing a ballet, but impressed at hubby thinking well outside the usual box.
When I met my husband he was a regular London theatre goer and used to take his mother to
see all the big shows. What I hadn't realised was that they only ever went to musicals. So whilst
between them they knew pretty much every musical to hit the West End in the previous 20 years,
he hadn't ever been to what I would have called 'a proper play' - i.e. one where nobody breaks into
song every few minutes. The realisation dawned after 2 hours sitting through a turgid performance
of Chekov's 'The Cherry Orchard'. We left at half time and went for pizza, not even bothering to
check how the story ended. It was great pizza. Since that time I've got him trained to love outdoor
Shakespeare and other fun stuff but I'd had no idea he was any more interested in ballet than I was
(or rather wasn't). I was concerned that one or both of us might nod off during the performance, but
I was equally determined to give it a go and not write it off as 'not for me' until I had tried it.
~ My (lack of) Ballet Dreams~
Most little girls are supposed to want to be ballet dancers. Not me - I was born with the natural
grace of a dyspraxic elephant and the musicality of a brick. When other little girls pranced about in
tutus with those silly wrap around cardigans, I was much more interesting in going off on my bike
and catching tiddlers in the local river. I missed the whole 'in love with horses' thing too - such are
the omissions of an inelegant working-class artistically talent-free childhood.
The Moscow City Ballet is a relatively new, post communist ballet company which was founded
only in 1988, the dream of a choreographer by the name of Victor Smirnov-Golovanov. Before this, most Russian ballet companies were state enterprises supported by the Soviet era governments,
seemingly happy to offer their people boring food, limited opportunities, very little freedom but
(compared to the rest of the world), really cheap ballet. Not so much Marie-Antoinette's "Let them eat
cake" and more a case of "Let them watch ballet". The Moscow City Ballet has toured all over the
world as well as within Russia, making hundreds of performances in the UK.
I'm not unfamiliar with touring theatre - especially repertory theatre - so my expectation of a touring
ballet company was that they would be a small group. I wasn't expecting a tiny Rep theatre group
of four to eight actors all playing multiple parts but I certainly wouldn't have been surprised to find a
couple of dozen dancers and maybe some smoke and mirrors to make them appear to be a bigger
This was our first time in Derngate theatre - I've been in the smaller Royal theatre before but not the
larger Derngate and I was quite impressed by the layout. I'm more familiar with the older theatres but
the Derngate only dates back to 1983 and lacks the elegance of other places and looks a bit like it
was designed by an architect more familiar with 1970s high rise housing estates that soon degenerate
into drugs and gang warfare. The curves and curlicues of the Victorian and Edwardian theatres are
missing, replaced by sharp straight lines. But on the plus side, the seats have been designed for late
20th century bottom width and leg length and are more than usually comfortable. We had seats in the
second row of the circle which was a perfect place to be - far enough from the stage to be able to see
all of the action, but not so far away as to need binoculars. Our performance was a Sunday matinee
and there was a wide range of outfits on display amongst the audience - from jeans and jumpers
through to frills and flounces. The younger audience members in particular seemed to have been
dressed up as if for a birthday party and I loved seeing how excited they were.
We were too mean to buy a programme and this proved to be a bit of a problem as we had absolutely
no idea what was going on for most of the first half. I had managed a furtive glance at the programme
of the lady next to me so I know that the first act was the prince's birthday party and the second was
a hunting trip but other than that I was clueless. I would definitely read an online synopsis before
attempting another ballet. I wouldn't normally reveal a plot to a book or a film but when you buy a
programme you get to know the whole story because there's the square root of bugger-all chance that
you'll work it out just by watching the dance.
~What's it all about, Siegfried?~
In the first act, Prince Siegfried's birthday party is taking place and it would appear that his parents
are lining up lots of eligible young ladies for his consideration. During this act there are some stunning
dances from the prince, his friend and the court jester but the jollity is short lived as the prince realises
that his happy carefree youth is soon to be curtailed by an arranged marriage.
In the second act, the prince has run off to join a hunting party. He sees a beautiful swan on the lake
dancing with the other swans. She has a coronet on her head and he returns at dusk to see her turn
into a beautiful young woman who explains that she's been put under a spell by an evil sorcerer. Only
the pure love of a good man can save her. This is the act with the big swan dances with dozens of
women dancing in formation to the most famous of the music.
As a naive viewer who didn't know the story (and looked it up on google after getting home), I had
worked out what was going on in the first act but was totally baffled by the second. When the swans,
all dressed in white were prancing about the stage, I really struggled to tell which was Odette, the
Swan Queen, and it was only much later that I spotted the crown. I was awestruck by the bendy
dancers and the contortions they put their bodies too, but the story wasn't coming across particularly
well from the dance. I also found the repeated breaking off from the action to take bows and curtseys
was really annoying.
After drinks and nibbles in the interval which my husband had carefully concealed about him in
an attempt to avoid the long queue for half time drinks, we borrowed the programme of our seat-
neighbour in order to have a bit more idea what was going on in the second half.
Act three opens with the prince checking out the girls again, each putting on a special performance
to show her worthiness to be his princess. Some of these performances are spectacular and it's nice
to see that it's not only the boys who get the big set piece dances. Siegfried can only think of Odette
and when he thinks she's come to the palace he wants to dance with her again. The only problem
is, it's not Odette - it's Odile, the daughter of the evil sorcerer who has been magically transformed
to look like Odette. Did I tell you to suspend disbelief before going to watch Swan Lake? I should
have. Women turn into swans, swans turn into women, people look like other people and it's all rather
confusing. Poor dumb Siegfried tells Odile he loves her and Odette, who flutters in now and then in a
way that left me utterly confused, flees back to her lake. Her Siegfried has picked the wrong girl and
she's doomed to be under the spell forever.
In the final act we're back at the lake for Siegfried to face a show down with Odette - who forgives
him - and a big dust up with the sorcerer who insists he must marry his daughter. It all gets very
confusing and lots of people die and then it's all over and I'm still totally confused.
As a first timer the whole thing baffled me. I nodded off a couple of times in the first half (put the lights
down on me and I fall asleep, can't help it) but I did enjoy it despite not really understanding most of
the action. I spent rather a lot of time musing on how on earth they got the men dancers into the tights
that looked as if they'd been spray painted onto them, how any human being could have buttocks that
were quite so muscular, why the swans appeared to be dancing around with what looked like sanitary
towels on their heads and why it was necessary to keep interrupting the action every few minutes
for all the bowing. In total I counted more than 50 dancers on stage at one time and wondered how
ballet can make money with so many salaries to pay. Add the costs of the orchestra on top and it's
a wonder that ballet companies can survive in the 21st century. The Moscow City Ballet tours year
round, getting a day or two off every month or two and travelling long distances. To put yourself
through such a rigorous schedule, dancing one or two performances per day and having to switch it
on day after day, left me overwhelmingly impressed by the stamina of the dancers and scared by the
damage that they must be doing to their bodies.
Would I go to watch ballet again? I'm not sure. I was very impressed by the amazing 'bendy' people,
irritated by all the bowing and the lack of clarity about what was going on and awestruck by the
energy displayed by the dancers. Did I actually LIKE the show? To be honest, it's not really my cup
of tea. I'm happy to be able to say I've been, to be able to tick it off my 'must do' list, but it's not
something I'd rush back to see again.