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From Ballet to Bob

London theatre's summer season

· ballet,theatre,London,Dylan,Mariinsky

After all the travelling, it's good to come home to London especially in the summer when the theatres are filled by visiting companies. In particular, there's ballet and I managed to see two very different companies in the space of a week: the Mariinsky and English National Ballet. The Mariinsky used to be known as the the Imperial Ballet and later, Stalin renamed it the Kirov after his old mate, Bolshevik revolutionary Sergei Kirov. Whichever name it goes under, it is the byword for ballet perfection.

They came with a programme designed to display just that - Don Quixote, Swan Lake, Anna Karenina and, of course, La Bayadere. There never was a corps de ballet like the Mariinsky's and in La Bayadere's breathtaking scene where they make their progress, arabesque by arabesque, across the stage, you are left in no doubt about this. The principals aren't bad either. I saw a dazzling Carmen (Diana Vishneva), and a suitably knock-your-socks-off bravura partnership in the Grand Pas from Paquita (Viktoria Tereshkina and Vladimir Shklyarov). Unusually for the Mariinsky there was also a contemporary piece by English choreographer Wayne McGregor. Infra (above) was the proof (not that it was needed) that there's no style they can't master.

It was quite a contrast with the English National Ballet's Romeo and Juliet at the Royal Festival Hall. Oddly enough, they used the choreography of Rudolf Nureyev, who defected from the USSR when the Mariinsky (or Kirov as it then was - I know, it's complicated) was in Paris in 1961. The version most often performed in this country is Kenneth MacMillan's which Nureyev himself danced with Margot Fonteyn. I'm afraid I was distinctly underwhelmed by Rudi's take on it - and indeed its performance by ENB (quite a few fluffs the night I was there). But any gripes I might have had with the dancers paled into insignificance compared to the off-stage behaviour. The Royal Festival Hall needs to get a grip! They were still showing people to their seats after the performance had started (torches at the ready, rows of people on their feet) and took no notice of people talking on their phones and even taking photographs with them during the performance. I see they are currently advertising more ballets coming up in the autumn. After this experience, my plan is to give them a wide berth.

So it was with relief I went to An American in Paris. Not a summer season show but certainly one that's all about dance and with a truly exquisite dancer, Leanne Cope from the Royal Ballet, in the Leslie Caron role. A show full of gorgeous Gershwin and unafraid of old-fashioned glamour and Hollywood pizazz - what a delight. And RFH, please note, they tell you on their website that latecomers are not admitted!

Bob Dylan is no Gershwin but he certainly wrote some good songs. And what heaven it is to hear them sung by people who can in Girl from the North Country at the Old Vic. This is an astonishing show. I really wasn't sure I was going to like it. Set in Duluth, Minnesota, where Bob came from too, it's the story of a complex set of characters all of whom inhabit a boarding house during the Great Depression. Doesn't sound too uplifting, right? But you'd be surprised. By turn, funny, touching, shocking, there was at the same time the kind of singing that raised the roof. There were lots of the songs I'd not heard before (though I'm admittedly not Bob's greatest fan) and it is as far as you can get from the West End-style greatest hits show. Instead, the songs and the plot are woven together seamlessly into a tapestry of overlapping lives and stories and presented by a magnificently versatile cast. (I especially liked Sheila Atim as Marianne Laine and the marvellous Shirley Henderson as her "mother" Elizabeth.) The whole audience leapt to their feet at the end and it can't just have been they were relieved it wasn't Bob doing the singing.

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