The Mariinsky Ballet is one of Russia's oldest and most esteemed companies, with a storied history and a central place in the development of classical dance. At the Abu Dhabi Festival performances on Thursday and Friday, four works were presented, in an homage to the company's legendary choreographer Michel Fokine (he was with the Mariinsky from the late 19th century until the early 20th, as a dancer then teacher then choreographer).
Fokine wasn't interested in sterile virtuosity for its own sake - for him, virtuosity was a means to deliver emotional expression; all classical dance after him is in his shadow.
The programme began with one of Fokine's most revolutionary works - the plotless Chopiniana (perhaps better known as Les Sylphides). The white-clad female troupe surround the male soloist, the Poet, as he searches for his Muse. Of all the evening's dance, this suffered from some slight technical imperfections: occasionally a member of the corps de ballet was out of perfect synchronicity with the rest, a flaw amplified by the identical costumes and symmetrical composition. As a plotless work, it is a distillation of the essence of classical dance - and perhaps the programme's most challenging for the audience. I wonder whether it was the wisest choice to open with.
After the interval, two brief but famed works: Le Spectre de la Rose and The Dying Swan. Le Spectre, the reverie of a girl back from her first ball, offers a male soloist the spotlight; this was a sublime evocation of dreams and longing. The Dying Swan, perhaps the most famous solo in all classical ballet, was danced beautifully, with those famous, fluttering arm movements married to tiny, delicate steps en pointe. Death has seldom looked so gorgeous.
Following the second interval, Scheherazade. This dramatic dance, a tale of lust and murder in the harem, is definitely not a ballet for children. The corps de ballet gave the scenes of orgiastic abandon a vigorous sincerity that avoided the possibility of kitsch, while the Golden Slave and Zobeide created a powerful chemistry in their illicit steps.
Classical ballet is the highest of the high arts, but a company like the Mariinsky Ballet brings it within the grasp of everyone. A triumphant evening, gratefully received by an almost-capacity audience who demonstrated a real appetite for classical dance in the UAE.