Mariinsky: a bluffer's guide

One of the world’s leading dance companies is in London this week, but how much do you know about the ballet formerly known as the Kirov? Let us enlighten you…

  • Mariinsky: a bluffer's guide

    © Natasha Razina

  • The Name
    You might know them better as the Kirov, but when the Soviet state collapsed, the company and its home theatre in St Petersburg reverted to the original Mariinsky name. They kept the Kirov tag for a while, but now it’s Mariinsky all the way.

    The Heritage
    What the Mariinsky definitely have on their side is tradition. Originally established as the Imperial Ballet, the company dates back to 1783. In the glory days of the late nineteenth century, the Mariinsky’s ballet master Marius Petipa created the ultimate classical works ‘Sleeping Beauty’ and ‘Swan Lake’, pretty much defining what the world now knows as ballet. Legendary dancers Nijinsky, Pavlova, Makarova, Nureyev and Baryshnikov all came through the company.

    The Style
    Not that we like to adhere to national stereotypes, but the St Petersburgers are proud of their house style, drilled into dancers at the Vaganova ballet school. The result is a perfectly synchronised, identical corps de ballet, with every dancer matched line-for-line. Style-wise, the Russians tend towards drama and virtuosity, but the Mariiinsky are particularly known for their expressive upper bodies and arched backs. ‘In other companies they do not have the same movement in the head, the arms, the fingers, the elbow, the softness of the body, the way the head and eyes follow the arms,’ says ballet master Yuri Fateev. ‘This is what makes the Mariinsky special.’

    The Rep
    It’s tradition that forms the bedrock of the Mariinsky repertoire, although recently there’s been a move towards modernity, taking on pieces by Balanchine, William Forsythe and Russian it-choreographer Alexei Ratmansky. However, international touring is all about the paydirt, so it’s safer to go with those pickled and preserved classics. The Opera House season will include stagings of ‘Swan Lake’ and ‘Sleeping Beauty’ by classical purist Konstantin Sergeyev.

    The Dancers
    Names to drop on this tour include Vladimir Shklyarov, gold medal winner at this year’s Moscow International Ballet Competition. A young, charismatic dancer, he had the audience screaming when he performed in New York, according to Fateev. Shklyarov will be dancing ‘Romeo and Juliet’ on the opening night with Alina Somova, another young up-and-comer who’s maturing into an intelligent artist. ‘She was a baby ballerina, but now she’s growing up,’ says Fateev. ‘She understands what she’s doing onstage. She’s showing a different side of her talent.’

    What should I see?
    For razzle dazzle, the Balanchine programme; for pure romance, it has to be Leonid Lavrosky’s 1940 ‘Romeo and Juliet’; for the ultimate tutu treat, star principal Uliana Lopatkina in ‘Swan Lake’.

    The Big Question
    Are they the best ballet company in the world? Plenty of people think so, not least the company themselves. ‘I think
    it’s true!’ says Fateev. But he would, of course. The rest of us can debate that in the interval.

    The Mariinsky Ballet are performing at the Royal Opera House, Mon Aug 3 - Aug15.

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