Swan Lake
Swan Lake

Small touring ballet companies reflect the health of the theatrical scene. They vary in quality, but all have one thing going for them – accessibility. They make it possible to see reasonably- priced ballet productions at small local theatres without having to travel miles to a major city at great expense. Most importantly they allow families to bring children relatively cheaply for what may be a first glimpse of ballet which in turn may trigger a life-long love of theatre or even kick-start a career into this tough but magical world.

Last year I saw Vienna Festival Ballet’s production of that most ambitious of classical ballets The Sleeping Beauty at the Garrick. I wasn’t expecting much. I have some idea of the problems confronting small touring companies. Rehearsal time, transport, sets, costumes, etc. and I’ve seen a fair number of these companies over the years. They vary from the respectable (considering the logistics involved) to the absolutely appalling.

But I came away from seeing Vienna Festival Ballet delighted and surprised. Young, enthusiastic, talented, these dancers enjoyed their performances with real virtuoso skills on show, plus great costumes and nice sets. Not the usual apology for a big, mainstream company, but honest-to-goodness style and yes, charming. The reaction of their audience proved how well they succeeded.

I asked Gill, wife of the company’s Austrian founder Peter Mallek how they set about achieving and maintaining their high standards. She said:

“We’re constantly on the lookout for things that look right – just trying to make it better. We sit out front in the stalls night after night, watching the quality of the performances and looking for things we can improve.”

It shows. She continued:

“We’re both ex-dancers. Peter’s danced with many of the major companies world wide including American Ballet Theatre in New York (famously directed in the 80s by Bolshoi defector Mikhail Baryshnikov) so he knows about high standards and the importance of keeping them up. He’s seen how things can get overlooked in large companies. Then gradually standards start to slide.

“My husband is brave, he’s a ball of energy. He’s dedicated, he absolutely loves it – he never wants to stop, and he communicates that energy to all his dancers.”

The company have in the past introduced more modern works into their repertoire, but Gill says it’s the classics Peter Mallek truly loves, and the public wants to see.

Gill explained:

“He believes the classics promote excellence. They are so grand and yet so subtle that every night’s different. This Swan Lake is an all-new production and the Wednesday performance is its official first night. Be sure and tell me what you think of it.”

I’m looking forward to seeing it, and I’ll certainly be letting her know.

Vienna Festival Ballet’s production of Swan Lake runs at the Garrick from November 17 to 20, including a matinee performance on that day at 2.30pm. For tickets contact the box office on 01543 412121 or go online at www.lichfieldgarrick.com.

Phil Preece