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Russian ballet in London: technique dazzles, choreography fizzles

After a ten-year absence from the London stage, the Russians recently returned to dance and to show off their superior technique - although they showed that much of their repertoire continues to be bland and stagnant.

As was to be expected, they met a mixed reception - political as well as critical.

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Not only did they have to contend on opening night with the tough, conservative British press, but the first performance was interrupted by Jewish anti-Soviet demonstrators, one of whom leaped onstage in the middle of the first act, startling the dancers and causing the audience to rise and chant in unison, ''Out, out!.''

The company chosen to represent the state of Soviet ballet today was the Moscow Classical Ballet (MCB), a troupe virtually unknown in the West. It is making its first visit to Britain.

Founded in 1968 by Igor Moiseyev, better known for his marvelous folk-dance group, the MCB has for the last seven years been under the direction of two ex-Bolshoi dancers, Vladimir Vassiliov and his wife, Natalia Kasatkina.

It is a young company of 55 dancers - average age 24 - which performs regularly in Moscow, especially at festival times, and tours the USSR, taking classical ballet to towns that lack their own companies.

As an extra box-office attraction the company brought with it the Bolshoi's own dazzling ballerina, Ekaterina Maximova, as guest artist. She frequently performs with the company in Moscow.

So hopes were high that the tour would reveal interesting new trends in both dance and choreography. Of the four ballets brought over, three were choreographed by Vassiliov and Kasatkina (although part of one had old classical concert-pieces in the story) and the other was a reconstruction of a romantic-era ballet ''Natalia, or the Swiss milkmaid'' by the Frenchman Pierre Lacotte.

Sadly, it became obvious during the company's two weeks in London (May 16-26) at the Dominion Theatre and later around Britain that, whereas the West has taken great strides in choreography during the last ten years, the political climate and isolation of the Soviet system has taken its toll.

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Perhaps the productions look fresh to the ''brought-up-on-classics-only'' Soviet balletomane, and I myself found them refreshing to watch when I lived in Moscow several years ago. But in the Western world of Balanchine, Cranko, Kylian , and Tetley, the MCB works seem frozen in limbo.

All the Vassiliov and Kasatkina ballets were too long and repetitive in steps. Often they were simply venues for tricks and bravura. And the stories could have been told in half the time. Often they were spoiled by unessential trivia.

However, if the ballets themselves were uninspiring and heavy, the individual dancers showed what strides the Russians have made in another field - conquering new physical and technical heights.

Some British critics called their style ''vulgar,'' but whatever one thought of their daring, how good it would be to see even a tiny portion of their bravura and continuously neat, strong presentation regularly gracing London balletic stages.

The audiences loved these moments, cheering the dancers and gasping at their feats.

The ballet that opened the season was ''Creation of the World,'' a long and sometimes humorous but often too comic-book version of the Adam and Eve story, hampered by less-than-memorable music by Petrov.

God was portrayed as a young man with a beard, a long flowing nightgown, and a lovely, light step. While he became bored with life, angels floated around him in baby-doll curly wigs and the devil displayed a long red tail.

With the advent of Adam and Eve the ballet took on a new dimension, for Maximova as Eve was a joy to watch. She was so completely at one with the music that her movements melted into one another with no visible connection or effort. Although not leaping as high as before, her steps were beautifully executed and polished.

For her partner, she relied on a charming and brilliant young man, Stanislav Isayev. As supple as an Olympic gymnast, Isayev flew through the air with the greatest of ease, performing one amazing stunt after another.

A gold medallist at the Varna competitions in 1980 and winner of the ''highest artistic skill'' award, he arrived in London from Paris with another honor - the Nijinsky prize.

His debut on the London stage was tremendous. His sharp attack, tidy completions to challenging steps, his remarkable elevation, and mid-flight hovering all made him the star of the company.

At tea with him and ballerina Tatiana Paly one afternoon, he said he had been with the company for 10 years and visited 26 countries.

While marveling at a traditional English afternoon tea spread of cucumber sandwiches, scones and cream, and strawberry tarts, both dancers agreed that new ''meaningful and real'' choreography was needed. Although some interesting work had been produced at the recent Soviet choreograhic competitions in Moscow, they felt most had been disappointing.

Tanya (short for Tatiana) also made an impact here with her razor-sharp fouette turns - not just the conventional 32 revolutions, but turning to face a new direction with each spin without moving off her spot. With the company for three years, she won the gold medal at Varna last year.

Like Isayev, she has just taken another prize in Paris and, like him, she is married to a company member.

The two dancers performed together in an excerpt from ''Flames of Paris.'' The excerpt was really a vehicle to show off all the young dancers in splendid competition form, but it was spoiled by the story, which included a slap-stick contortionist, a harem of veiled slave-girls coming out of a trunk, and war with ''ballet-brings-peace'' propaganda at the finale.

''The Magic Cloak'' was certainly children's fare with its gaudy costumes, numerous characters in endless adventures and an ugly hero who resembed Ronald McDonald in orange wig and stripey clothes.

Appropriately, the company performed the ballet for 2,000 children specially invited by the Greater London Council and it was loudly appreciated.

The company left the shores of the United Kingdom June 15, but not before performing in Wales, the Midlands, and Scotland. There they met kinder critics, packed houses, and audiences that stood and cheered.

Despite its dull and uninspired ballets, the company left its mark on the paying public with some lasting memories of brilliant young Russian dancers.

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