Festival Ballet: embracing its audiences

To most people, ballet in London means the Royal Ballet and its sister touring company, the Sadler's Wells Royal Ballet. An alternative, however, is the London Festival Ballet, which offers the dancegoer a popular repertoire at popular prices.

It does, of course, perform the perennial crowd pleasers: the full-length classics of ''Swan Lake'' and ''Giselle,'' and at Christmas ''The Nutcracker'' and ''Cinderella.'' But there are also many welcome revivals and dramatic new productions for the differing tastes of London audiences.

In the season that recently jete-ed across the stages of three different West End theaters (the LFB has no fixed home of its own), the company entertained with breadth and variety from its repertory.

The fluffy feathers of one night (''Swan Lake'') gave way to lacy Spanish mantillas the next (''The Three Cornered Hat''); the waltzing of Viennese military cadets (''Graduation Ball'') yielded to the whirling tribal dances of central Asian Mongols (''Prince Igor''); and the white, ethereal ballerinas (''Les Sylphides'') became bronzed, bejeweled harem dancers (''Scheherazade'').

The company peformed with tremendous enthusiasm. A few times, especially toward the end of the three-month season, neater footwork, firmer partnering, and stricter control in the pure classical extracts were needed.

Yet the LFB was never more convincing than in two engrossing Russian tragedies, added to its repertory recently.

''The Storm,'' by Ostrovsky, acquired two years ago, and Pushkin's ''Onegin, '' added earlier this year, demonstrated the company's ability to reach out and involve its audiences.

Visually attractive, they offered differing aspects of pre-revolutionary Russia. With well-founded choreography and intelligent dancing, the first portrayed the emotions and atmosphere of a provincial town in the Volga basin, and the latter conveyed the elegance of St. Petersburg's high society.

''The Storm'' opens with a flash-forward to the story's tragic end. A cacophony of gongs, kettledrums, and brass announces a darkened sky, thunder, and rain. A growing light picks out the body of a young drowned girl at water's edge. Youthful peasant couples gather. The girls are in sarafans, shawls, and half-mooned shaped kokoshniks - which rest on their heads tied with long hanging bows at the back. The boys wear round hats, flowing, collarless shirts tied at the waist, and baggy pants tucked into boots.

As the body is carried away, a matriarchal figure in large, layered, heavy black dress takes the arm of her grieving son and regally returns to their dacha (summer house). The somber music of Shostakovich underlines the mood.

Patricia Ruanne, principal ballerina with the LFB, made a touching Katya, a woman deprived of her freedom because tradition demands that wives become virtual slaves of husbands and mothers-in-law. Her lovely lines and clear interpretation showed the storm that rages within her after meeting a handsome stranger, Boris. She is torn by the chance of happiness and escape and by the fear of discovery.

''The Storm,'' in only one act, pulsates with feeling.

It was also a happy surprise to see ''Onegin'' so beautifully presented.

The company filled the stage with elegance, grace, and beauty. At one moment in Act I, the young girls came flying diagonally with jetes that started from the back of the stage, first from the right and then from the left. Accompanied and supported by running partners, they were most effective.

''Onegin'' is a Russian ''Romeo and Juliet,'' full of passion and frustration. The ballet is a danced version of Alexander Pushkin's beautiful poem ''Eugene Onegin,'' although the music is not that of Tchaikovsky's famous opera of the same name.

Choreography is by the late John Cranko, who greatly influenced German ballet until his untimely death in 1973. He created ''Onegin'' in 1965, then revised and condensed it two years later, using two of his favorite dancers, Marcia Haydee and Richard Cragun. Both visited London to star in the LFB production.

The two dancers, having worked together for so many years, complement each other like sun and sea. Haydee as Tatiana never doubted Cragun's presence as she threw herself at him in many complicated leaps, especially in the emotional ''love letter'' scene, done in the ballet as a dream sequence. Cragun as Onegin was strong and severe in his interpretation but light and swift in his dancing.

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