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Don Quixote review – synchronised bull-fighters take over as the Mariinsky banishes Don

Traditional Russian ballets can be baggy old beasts, and none baggier than Don Quixote. In the production that opens the Mariinsky’s London season, the killer-to-filler ratio isn’t great. In modern tapas style, it’s a long meal of small plates – many of them pudding – though garnished with lashings of Ibérico ham.

These dishes may arrive in any order. There’s an enthusiastic score (brass and percussion get a good workout) and bilious Spanish(ish) costumes. Cape-swirling and fan-clacking. A toreador with a dirty twinkle and a sultry Gypsy with emotional issues. Painful buffoonery, gymnastic dancing and an unexpected number of synchronised matadors.

The Bolshoi go at this stuff with nostril-flaring vigour; the Mariinsky are historically more elegant, though I’m not sure tasteful is the point with Don Quixote. It’s like repainting the Love Island shacks with Farrow and Ball. The classiest elements here were Yekaterina Chebykina’s featherlight sprite and the delicious painted scenery (the designers went on to work for Diaghilev): a harbour scene in apricot and raspberry, an enchanted woodland with peach-coloured foliage.

Alexander Gorsky, who restaged Petipa’s original ballet in 1902, was captivated by Stanislavsky’s naturalistic work at the Moscow Arts theatre, and hoped to add realism and narrative drive to ballet spectaculars. You wouldn’t guess it from this picturesque mess of a revival, however. The declawed corps are unengaged, and emotional truth a distant memory. We’re a long way from the Three Sisters.

Don Quixote, Cervantes’s chivalric knight who mislays his grip on reality, is all but banished from his own story (although Soslan Kulaev gives him a pained gravity). The spindly plot centres on Kitri, an innkeeper’s daughter determined to marry poor barber Basilio. These are the show-off roles, to which in the first cast Viktoria Tereshkina brought the steel and Kimin Kim the sinew.

There’s little doubt that Tereshkina’s heroine will get her way. Just see her knuckle-rapping way with a fan, not to mention her unassailable kicks and spins. Kim’s elasticated bounce is equally striking, and the pair meet the challenges of their final pas de deux with spotless elan. Yet they make an impressive rather than a magnetic couple.

Museum ballet can be fun, and illuminating. This languid revival isn’t quite enough of either, and the story doesn’t hold. We’re left with Kitri following her heart’s desire – finding a man who will hold her aloft on one hand while she jiggles her tambourine.