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Culture news, 25.11.2005 16:04

Flight from modernity

ballet Laura Thompson reviews Swan Lake at the Albert Hall

This company was formed in 1994 by a young Russian named Konstantin Tachkin, who, according to the programme notes, always wanted "to become an impresario".

It is a wonderfully old-style ambition, and the St Petersburg Ballet Theatre, which opened a British tour this week, is its old-style realisation.

Indeed, watching Swan Lake, I felt that the company could have been formed in 1954, or even 1894. This is not necessarily a bad thing. It simply turns ballet into something different, takes it away from the modernising tendency that has both revitalised and unnerved it in Britain. On which subject: ballet may fret about its relevance to today's world but, on an arctic night at the Albert Hall, a large and diverse crowd wanted nothing better than to enjoy our dear old friend, Swan Lake.

The St Petersburg Ballet Theatre is a small company, mostly Agrippina Vaganova-trained and thus rooted in Kirov traditions. Yet this was not especially obvious on the opening night: the corps de ballet looked a bit off its game, and those gymnastic extensions which dancers routinely throw into the air - not classical ballet - are becoming a bore.

Generally, the high legs seemed an anachronism, ripping as they did through the illusion of being back in an earlier era. I kept thinking of the company in the 1948 film The Red Shoes: it too had an impresario, costumes that looked straight out of a dressing-up box, dancers who looked like real girls rather than bodiless waifs. It, too, conveyed the mysterious magic of ballet, which weaves its spell even when - as with this Swan Lake - it is imperfectly danced in a bizarre gilded gothic setting, to music played far too slowly.

But St Petersburg Ballet Theatre has an absolute belief in itself, and in ballet. It also has an ace up its sleeve in Irina Kolesnikova, its Odette-Odile, who has a statuesque allure and firm technique. Her deliberate playing to strengths (she favours, for example, a baroque curving attitude in which her back meets her lifted leg) is too knowing. But, if she is an old-fashioned star, a star she undoubtedly is.

She it was who took me back to 1894, to the days when Mathilde Kschessinskaya - one-time lover of Russia's last tsar - would turn her 32 fouettes at the Maryinsky Theatre while wearing her Fabergé jewels.

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