The origins of the Russian folk tale The Snow Maiden are obscure and perhaps go back to a time out of mind, and when Tchaikovsky was asked by his friend Alexandr Ostrovsky, a pre-Chekovian Russian dramatist who was keen on the folkloric roots of the language and its Cyrillic script, to come up with music for his 1873 play A Spring Legend. Tchaikovsky composed not a ballet score but incidental music as divertissements for the drama. The ballet score which premiered in 1946 for the Bolshoi company is a digest of this music, beefed up by themes from Symphony No. 1 and elsewhere. I recall that at a production years ago a Balanchine waltz was added into the mix, so the score can be a bit of a musical pot-pourri.
Our ballet has The Snow Maiden living in the Frozen Forest with friends and Father Frost. When out of fatal curiosity she ventures as far as the peasant village of Berendeyevka, her sense of adventure weaves a web of both love and betrayal as her ethereal beauty turns the heads of the young men and incurs the ire of the young women. The conclusion is surprisingly unsentimental, in the tradition of The Pied Piper or Rip van Winkel, and brief reference is made to the cycle of spring and renewal that must follow death and the Russian winter; elements emphasized in the original folk tale.
The Russian State Ballet of Siberia's production of The Snow Maiden at the New Theatre on Monday night proved to be an apt choice since an east wind was blowing in from the Ural Mountains, if not Vladivostok with the force of a Tupolev airliner. Talking of which, a Moscow airline is currently running a free flight promotion for passengers who check in dressed as the ballet's Father Frost (beard compulsory) or The Snow Maiden (plait obligatory). However, the notion of this Oxford winter surrendering to spring seemed far-fetched even in these global-warming days.
This same ballet 24 months ago from the company tended towards the unadventurous. But not this time, since they seemed to have jettisoned last year's notion of trundling slabs of painted scenery in a lorry around the UK – the current tour runs in two tranches until August – in favour of light and image projection onto blank walls; a canny decision. Thus in Act I scene i we had a wood in shades of white and cream speckled by thickly falling snowflakes, and later the palette changed as we moved from village, both rusty-coloured and rustic, to the blues and greens of river bank and open fields of Act II. There was a charming moment in Act I scene ii, well worth having retained from January 2016, when the Snow Maiden melted and vaporised in clouds of steam.
A full orchestra of 30, including harp and a substantial wind section, under conductor Anatoly Chepurmoy was disciplined in that it never overwhelmed the visual spectacle. The 'Maypole Dance' was a special highlight. There was no sense, as I have sometimes felt with touring Russian productions, of players going through the motions with the music for the umpteenth time, nor that this was not a dedicated ballet score. Commendable given that the conductor and no doubt many of the band remain the same from last year.
The 16-strong corps de ballet playing first snowflakes in diaphanous white, then villagers in beiges and browns (but what were those bizarre bobbed wigs they were sporting?), then half of them as stately attendants on the mayor, was energetic and ubiquitous. The young dancers in the audience, including a group just in front of me, must have drawn inspiration from their movement – their steps were often deceptively simple; this ballet with this choreography is an excellent introduction for youngsters to the ballet. Nor would connoisseurs seeking technically accomplished dancing come away empty-handed.
The allegro from the three clowns was brisk and lively, and they provided refreshing comic relief to the poignancy of the narrative. But aficionados must have taken particular pleasure in the dancing of the five principals, all returning from the 2016 Oxford performance. Ekaterina Bulgutova was a romantically optimistic Snow Maiden, perky with her jerky leaps. The muscular but flexible Georgiy Bolsunovski as the smitten Mizgir executed a terrific pas de deux with her. Anna Fedosova in the part of the jilted Kupava performed her adagio with fluidity and grace, reflecting her melancholy state. When the Snow Maiden melted into water, I think she warmed the audience's collective heart.