Last week I recommended Adelaide-based Australian Dance Theatre’s ADAPT season (and still do; there are five more works to come). This week we go rather further afield – to Helsinki, San Francisco and St Petersburg. Armchair travel can have its benefits, not least of which is the chance to settle down comfortably, no customs or immigration required, with a glass of wine to revisit old friends or sample work you are currently unacquainted with. Finnish National Ballet very probably falls into the latter category for most of us – I’d not seen the company before – but is definitely worthy of interest, as is its take on A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Helgi Tómasson’s production of Romeo & Juliet for San Francisco Ballet is comfortingly familiar territory – a faithful rendering of the story to Prokofiev’s score. It’s never a bad thing to add to one’s list of memorable Juliets and SFB’s Maria Kochetkova is just glorious. As for the Mariinsky, well, say no more.
First to Finland, a small country with a population of 5.5 million that nevertheless has a national ballet company employing 73 dancers. It’s a considerable size. Our national ballet company is only a little bigger with 78 dancers, a point I mention as a way of segueing into today’s fun fact. When David McAllister leaves the artistic directorship of The Australian Ballet at the end of this year he will embark on a freelance career that includes staging ballets, and his very first assignment is arguably the biggest of them all. McAllister is making a new Swan Lake, and for none other than Finnish National Ballet. It will open in late February and should look amazing. Its designs are in the hands of Gabriela Tylesova, who was responsible for the sumptuous settings and costumes for McAllister’s Sleeping Beauty for The Australian Ballet. As he says in a short video piece on the Finnish company’s website, the ballet will be something of an early celebration of Finnish National Ballet’s centenary, which comes up in 2022. Further fun fact: the swan is Finland’s national bird.
Finnish National Ballet is generously putting work online for a long period in what it calls its Stage24 program. You can dive into A Midsummer Night’s Dream, choreographed by Jorma Elo, from any time now until November (there’s also a contemporary, overwrought Romeo and Juliet available, choreographed by Natália Horečná). Elo’s long-standing international reputation has been made on his one-act contemporary pieces and Dream, created in 2010 for Vienna State Opera Ballet, was the first of his few full-length works. This performance by the Fins was recorded in 2017. It uses the incidental music Mendelssohn wrote for Shakespeare’s play, which is enough for only a short ballet (as in Frederick Ashton’s The Dream), and augments it with other exceptionally well-known Mendelssohn for a delightful score.
Elo’s story-telling is clear and the characters register strongly. Perhaps taking a leaf from George Balanchine’s book, Elo covers most of the plot in the first act and makes the second a feast of dancing in celebration of love. While initially Elo’s choreography looks hard-edged and distinctly unclassical (witty, too) he uses more traditional balletic language to explore the characters’ passions. It’s often extremely sensual. One warning: the lighting is unaccountably dark for the first half hour and it requires a little patience. I admit there were moments when I considered bailing but there was always something to keep me watching. I was glad to make the company’s acquaintance.
If your taste runs to a traditional Romeo & Juliet, San Francisco Ballet’s will do the trick. It also has an Australian connection of note: Luke Ingham started his career with The Australian Ballet, moved to Houston Ballet for a while and ended at SFB almost a decade ago. He has been a principal artist with the company since 2014. For this R&J he is a glowering, bullying Tybalt only just keeping check on a violent temper. Helgi Tomasson’s direction of the great Act II scene in which Romeo kills Tybalt is spine-tingling. I don’t think I’ve seen it done better. Davit Karapetyan is an incredibly appealing Romeo who has great chemistry with the feather-light Maria Kochetkova, whose believability as a very young woman glowing with promise and in the grip of powerful new emotions is complete. The production is available online until Monday May 25. The trailer below will give you a taste of the production, with the link to the full ballet underneath.
Finnish National Ballet is nearly 100 and SFB is the oldest company in the US having been founded in 1933; the Mariinsky has been making ballet since the mid-18th century. Attention must be paid. You can see it at its most traditional in The Sleeping Beauty, a ballet that was, of course, created for the company in 1890 by Petipa. Yekaterina Osmolkina’s Aurora doesn’t quite have the dewy youthfulness the first act requires but she is radiant in the wedding celebrations of Act III. Her Prince Désiré is the Korean-born superstar Kimin Kim, who has been a Mariinsky principal artist since 2015 and if you haven’t come across him before, don’t miss this chance. He is excitingly fleet on the ground and gorgeously slow and pillowy in the air.
As a bonus you will hear a more than usually full account of Tchaikovsky’s music. Many companies take the decision to cut the glorious six-minute section with solo violin that accompanies Désiré and the Lilac Fairy to the sleeping Aurora’s side, just after the Vision scene. It certainly delays the kiss, no argument about that. But chiefly companies want to bring the curtain down within three hours of starting, including a couple of intervals, so quite a lot has to go. It has nothing to do with art and all to do with audience attention spans and the overtime budget. The Mariinsky leaves those six minutes in and they are exquisitely played as an interlude. It’s well worth waiting for.