When in Russia, do as the Russians do: go to the ballet. The Mariinsky Theatre, St Petersburg is an oversized peppermint cake of a building, fitted internally with glittering chandeliers, golden cornices, and enough cloakrooms to house the many layers necessary to move about in this city.
My friends and I arrived at the theatre a little late, no great surprise there. We need not have panicked. Instead of just a two-minute warning bell announcing the start of the performance, there were a series of bells. Having witnessed the subsequent quick gulps in response to one, I like to think it was the ‘drink up your champagne’ bell. There is plenty of time to enjoy the caviar blinis, smoked salmon and copious quantities of champagne in the many bars peppered throughout the building.
There were a number of English speaking staff and numerous signs written in English, more than perhaps anywhere else we’ve visited during our stay. Ballet and Opera clearly attracts an international crowd. We were even able to purchase an English program. We were shown to our seats on the balcony; they were green velvet padded dining chairs, rather than the pull down fixed seating I’d normally expect in a theatre. The view was only partially obscured by an unusually tall man who sat in front of me.
This version of Giselle is the same that’s been performed in the Mariinsky, by the Kirov ballet, since 1884. The only minor tweaks added were those for Anna Pavlova’s debut in 1903. This is history dancing, in it’s birthplace.
The orchestra sounded heavenly to me, and I drifted off to another world by the time the curtain rose. The scenery was quaint and hand painted, perhaps a little bit dated compared to the more experimental and flashy set design you see in the Royal Opera House or the Coliseum, but charming nonetheless. Though it’s the traditional way to perform the piece, I found the melodramatic hand signals, which indicate the story between the dancing, a touch pantomime.
The moment the prima ballerina, Evgenia Obraztsova (from The Bolshoi Theatre), floated onto the stage the crowd went wild. When she performed her pas de bourree (travelling on-point in a series of tiny steps across the stage) the crowd went wild. She was a feather dancing on the breeze. I forgot all about the scenery, and the hand signals, and was swept up into the romance of Giselle and her story.
When Giselle discovers the man she loves has lied about who he is, and he’s betrothed to someone else, I felt her heartbreak so strongly I cried. I’ve been to the ballet several times, but I’ve never been driven to tears by the strength of the emotion conveyed by a dancer. It turns out I’ve been misusing the phrase ‘it took my breath away’ all my life. Now I’ve felt it. Seeing Obraztsova fly across the stage, caught in the agony of her emotion, I felt it, like a punch.
All the dancing was exquisite. The kind that makes you lean forwards in your seat, hungry for more. The beauty, the skill, the pain, and the impossible are all there on the stage. It prompted a physical reaction in me. It was a new and incredible sensation for me. I urge you; if you’re ever in this neck of the woods get a ticket.
Tickets can be purchased in advance on the website. There is an English language version. http://www.mariinsky.ru/en