Civic Theatre, Newcastle, October 2
ON Wednesday night I went to Newcastle for a family outing to the ballet, the Russian National Ballet Theatre’s Nutcracker, which is touring in repertory with – no surprises here – Swan Lake. Newcastle’s lovely Civic Theatre wasn’t exactly overflowing with eager ballet fans, despite the city being famed for its production of high-level dancers.
There were a couple of possible reasons. Only the night before RNBT had performed Swan Lake, and just two weeks earlier the Imperial Russian Ballet Company, also on tour around Australia, had presented its wacky but generous triple bill A Festival of Russian Ballet. (This consists of Nutcracker condensed into one act, Bolero, and a series of divertissements.)
Whatever the reason, it was a pretty good call on the part of Newcastle to steer clear of Nutcracker. Tickets were nearly $100 for the following: a severely truncated ballet with only the vaguest storyline; choreography consisting almost entirely and repetitively of classroom combinations; and a production of modest scale, to put it kindly. Press material describes the ballet as having a “huge cast”, but that isn’t true, unless you think of about 30 dancers as a huge company. The Stahlbaum’s party was a very wretched affair indeed.
Of course there was no orchestra; just a tape of Tchaikovsky’s score, reduced and indifferently played.
There was no cast list available so I bought the $20 program, which revealed very little other than there are four principal dancers – this for a tour with 53 performances and not many nights off – and that the promoter is a Chinese outfit, which may explain why more than a handful of the dancers look as if they may be Chinese rather than Russian. (I do acknowledge the vast extent of Russia across Europe and Asia.) The “company director” is Evgeny Omosov, described in the program as the co-founder, in 2001, of RNBT (one assumes he is the choreographer of this Nutcracker).
Recent reviews from the US of a company called Russian National Ballet Theatre say the outfit is led by Elena Radchenko and it is described as having been founded in the late 1980s, although at first called Soviet National Ballet. It is Radchenko’s company that seems to have attracted the description of being “a cut above many of its rivals”. That seems fairly faint praise but the phrase is requoted everywhere, as it is said to come from The Washington Post.
These words are emblazoned on the cover of the program I bought in Newcastle. Is this the same company? Who the hell knows? I do know that Elena Radchenko’s name is nowhere mentioned, and the founding dates don’t match up.
Anyone at all familiar with the development of ballet in the 20th century knows that it stood on the backs of dancers who were prepared to tour anywhere and everywhere, spreading the gospel. Some of the very biggest names in ballet were the most indefatigable. So this treadmill touring isn’t anything new. It’s also not new that the Russian brand is being exploited. For many people, “Russian” is a guarantee of authenticity. Alas, this isn’t necessarily the case.
I can understand the desire of Australia’s smaller cities to get an experience of the ballet, but it is so disheartening to see productions like RNBT’s Nutcracker promoted as keepers of the flame. Both my nieces, former ballet students, said it reminded them of an end-of-year production from a not-so-good ballet school.
I think I must have seen Anastasiia Kolesnikova as Maria (usually known as Clara) and Sergei Zolotarev as the Prince, although don’t quote me on that. Both leading dancers were clearly much better than their material and Kolesnikova (if indeed it were she) acted vividly. The guy dancing the Mouse King was pretty good, but I have no idea who he is.
I was much taken by a dark beauty in the corps, a dancer of subtlety and grace who looked as if she were in another world entirely rather than a sparsely attended show quite unworthy of her talents, and with another 30-plus shows to come, most in one or two-night stands. It’s Wollongong tonight, Sydney’s Chatswood tomorrow (Swan Lake, sold out), Sunday off, Wagga Wagga Monday and so on until the tour ends at Sydney’s Enmore Theatre on November 19 having started in Mackay on September 21.
In the interests of fairness I must report that the small audience reacted very warmly to the performance.
As for the Imperial Russian Ballet Company, it started its tour in Mandurah, Western Australia, on September 4 and ends in Sydney at the State Theatre on October 27. It appears to have built a popular following Australia, having toured several times. It promises to return next year. If you want my opinion, Imperial Russian Ballet Company is a cut above the version of the Russian National Ballet Theatre I saw this week, but what they both offer is a simulacrum of ballet, a vague appearance of the real thing with unidentified dancers in threadbare productions, churning their way through dates to canned music. All at very steep prices.
This is proof indeed of a big appetite for ballet in regional Australia, and that people will pay for it. A niche has been identified. Sadly, however, it appears that to fill that niche you need a commercial producer prepared to treat dancers as if they were anonymous assembly line workers, have extremely modest standards when it comes to staging, be happy to present the greatest classical repertoire in bastardised forms and without live music, and trade off having a connection with Russia.