at the Auditorium Theatre

October 31-November 2

The Moscow Classical Ballet, on its first American tour, introduced itself to Chicago with four attractive, if not stellar, performances of Swan Lake, Russia’s greatest and best-loved contribution to classic ballet. Although the company has a permanent theater in Moscow, it was established primarily to tour across the Soviet Union and abroad.

As a general rule, touring productions cut back on lavish sets, which are too cumbersome to tote around, and concentrate more on the dance and dancers. This works well, more often than not, but Swan Lake is the cultural icon of Russian classic ballet; it should be total theater, with sumptuous settings and costumes, a pit orchestra capable of doing justice to Tchaikovsky’s gorgeous music, and dancers who can master the ballet’s numerous technical and dramatic demands. To MCB’s credit, despite simple sets and frequently less-than-inspired sounds from the orchestra (led by Pavel Salnikov), the company mounted a creditable production, one that showed its modestly sized roster of dancers off to fine advantage.

This is a company that performs as a whole, with a unified balletic style. Arms, legs, and torsos are nicely held. The male corps were especially impressive–strong, light on their feet, with sure technique and fine elevation in jumps; they were secure in their partnering and good-looking into the bargain. The women were equally accomplished in body language, with prettily held arms and legs that seemed to lift on invisible ball bearings.

Both men and women were uninhibited and exciting in the intricate steps and distinctive styles of the various national dances displayed in the third act. Russian ballet dancers seem to have a remarkable ability to dance the tricky and highly stylized steps of, say, a Hungarian czardas, a Polish mazurka, and a wild Spanish dance as though all three were familiar to them; Russian ballet companies place great emphasis on training in such character dancing.

MCB’s corps de ballet is slightly smaller than full-size, which necessitated some choreographic adjustments–16 swans, for example, instead of the usual 24. But even in tradition-bound Russian ballet, tradition has never been holy writ. MCB credits no fewer than six choreographers for this Swan Lake, including Natalya Kasatkina and Vladimir Vasilyov, the company’s current artistic directors.

The first successful Swan Lake was created by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov, who in 1895 completely redid the abysmal original Bolshoi production for the Maryinsky Theatre in Saint Petersburg. Their version has been embellished many times. In 1911, Bolshoi choreographer Alexander Gorsky introduced the Jester, a role rarely seen in Western productions; MCB’s Jester, Ilgiz Galimullin, tossed off a string of spectacular leaps and barrel turns. In 1952, Asaf Messerer deepened the last act’s emotion. Soviet companies generally give the ballet a happy ending, but MCB broke with that tradition too.

Several of the embellishments contributed by MCB we could have done without. In the first act peasant dance, the men, while whirling their partners around, stand them on small stools and then immediately lift them onto other stools–a pointless eccentricity. In the third act, a so-so variation for a prospective bride princess has been added. Danced in a tutu by Galina Shlyapina, a principal with the company, it seemed to have been inserted solely to give one of the company’s stars a chance to shine in a brief turn.

The Swan Queen was danced by Alla Kahaniashvili, an elegant and brilliantly controlled guest artist from the Bolshoi. Her prince was Alexander Gorbatsevich, who was a good if not inspired partner, but not much of an actor. Their second act pas de deux, although meticulously danced, was not the heart-stirring experience it ought to be. I blame the orchestra’s inordinately fast tempo for limiting Kahanlashvili’s freedom to interpret her role more fully. I don’t remember ever hearing such a fast Swan Lake. It’s as though Salnikov was determined to get through the ballet before the American musicians went into overtime. That the cast could dance at this breakneck speed without dropping a single step was a miracle.

The Black Swan pas de deux, on the other hand, was spectacular–at least Kahaniashvili’s part of it. She was a wonderfully campy, vampy siren, and her double fouettes in the coda were breathtaking. Unfortunately, Gorbatsevich did not contribute the requisite flash or daring in his own leaps and turns.

Many of the supporting roles were beautifully danced. I was especially impressed by Vladimir Malakhov, who danced Benno, the prince’s friend. Tall and slender, with a superb ballon and effortless flight in air, Malakhov is a recent graduate of ballet school and will unquestionably have an extraordinary career.

Although the sets were of the make-do sort, stripped down for touring, the costumes were among the most stunning I’ve seen in any Swan Lake. They were executed by Kim Baker, which is hardly a Russian name. The touring production was a joint venture between the Moscow company and the London-based Entertainment Corporation. Only the dancers and the dancing were purely Russian.