Review: Mariinsky Theatre (formerly Kirov) in The Golden Age at Coliseum

Performance: 28/9 July
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Monday 31 July 2006

There is potential for an OK 2-Act ballet to break out from the obesity of this over-elaborate and self-indulgent three-Act piece. As a work in progress, it needs to be slimmed down but only if some heretical – albeit essential – liberties are taken with the Shostakovich score.

Leaving aside the pitifully insufficient time that the company had to make a new full-length ballet, the main problem is inherent in the company’s apparent insistence that the reclaimed score was to be used in its entirety, without any re-arrangement. This so tied the hands of choreographer, Noah Gelber, that it has only been possible for him to meet the demands of the libretto by using significant amounts of padding: for example, at the end of the second Act, the scenario explains that a few stragglers are left behind after a party but this simple sentence takes several minutes to enact.

In a drama-ballet that is already woefully short of dancing, the additional baggage necessitated to pad out the needs of the score, creates a work that fails to inspire and frequently drifts towards boredom. Only the middle Act bucks this trend.

On the plus side, the staging is excellent: an opening sequence of digital photographs flying out of an electronic album quickly builds an appropriately nostalgic atmosphere and the device of a huge box camera wheeling across the stage effectively separated the present-day from 70 years ago; costumes were universally evocative of that Golden Age, especially in the retro sportswear for the soccer teams, even though the shorts seemed more appropriate as beachwear than for the football pitch. Gelber’s dance movements for the football sequences, especially in the opening scene kick-about in the park, were the only bright spots in otherwise unremarkable choreography. There are simply too many cluttered crowd scenes of dubious intent and too much mime extended beyond its usefulness to match the requirements of the music.

In the context of a visiting soviet football team to western Europe, the relevance of the sporting references often seemed unclear, with an incongruous photo of Jesse Owens, the American who won several athletics gold medals at the Berlin Olympics of 1936 (right country, wrong sport) together with grainy black-and-white film of a long jumper and discuss thrower. Although the rules of football have changed much since the 30s, matches didn’t start as 8-a-side and then end up as mass free-for-alls (one team having 2 No 5’s and another 2 No 10’s!). It was all very confusing but at least it gave me something to think about.

Whilst it’s certainly appropriate to mark the centenary of Shostakovich’s birth by recreating his very first ballet, it would have been better to have given the new choreographer greater freedom in interpreting the score, and the company more time to prepare such a full-scale work for performance. As it stands this is a dud and it needs a great deal more tender loving care and considerable dieting to make it palatable for a paying audience.

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