Linbury Theatre, Royal Opera House, London
September 12, 2019
Making their London debut, Astana Ballet’s quadruple bill provides for an interesting evening of contrasting styles. Three works feature modern choreography, one very dramatically, while the fourth presents the beauty of traditional Kazakh folk art in the company’s signature piece.
Highlight of the programme is undoubtedly Mukaram Avakhri’s Salome. Based on Oscar Wilde’s play, it is a pièce de résistance, a stunning work, stunningly performed that could grace any international stage with ease.
It is the night of a lunar eclipse, the blood-red moon a portent to the blood-sacrifices to come. We are immediately catapulted into the dark, paegan world of the court of King Herod, the guests at a feat keen to see the imprisoned John the Baptist. The tension is rise way beyond the death of the early Christian.
Farkhad Buriyev’s chaste John provides a manly foil to the seductive Aizhan Mukatova as Salome, a lissom temptress who exacts revenge as a mere prelude to the bloodshed.
A clever, simple set sees the effective use of a long table that doubles as a wall, along which Salome rolls John the Baptist’s head. Herod (Kazbek Akhmedyarov) strides atop it, happy to yield to his lustful wife (Rita Kanatkyzy) and daughter and lording over his subjects who wreathe and writhe in ritual dances.
It’s all accompanied by a terrific original score by Turkish composer Fazil Say which draws from across the eastern world, its persistent phrases pulling to the inevitable conclusion. As the moon darkens, it ends simply but vividly as each subject walks along the table, now a cliff before choosing their own way to plunge to the death. The interval was a much-needed breather after such drama.
The preceding evening Love Fear Loss by Ricardo Amarante provided for a rather more tepid opening. The trio pas de deux danced to a piano arrangement of Edith Piaf songs was not helped by a poor recording that only emphasised the thinness of the solo instrument. It was crying out for a fulsome orchestral arrangement.
In ‘Hymne a L’amour’, inspired by Piaf’s love for the boxer Marcel Cerdan, Dilara Shomayeva and David Jonathan seemed to be dancing with all the stops in. Ainur Abilgazina and Ilya Manayenkov and did at least inject some passion into their dance in the second duet before Tatyana Ten and Farkhad Buriyev pulled off some fiendishly difficult partnering with aplomb in Mon Dieu’.
After the break, The Heritage of the Great Steppe is a six-part, mostly mundane, near-tourist board image of Kazakh national dance, not helped by a tinny score played on a synthesiser. Traditional instruments would have helped enormously. It did show the range of influences on local dance, no doubt brought by travellers on the Silk Road, however. As pleasant as it was, it only really came alive in the last section, ‘Motherland’, in which male and female warriors evoke equestrian archery in a Polovtsian Dances style.
The closing A Fuego Lente by Amarante could not have been more different and provided another fine vehicle to showcase the talents of this young company. It’s not always as slow burning as it suggests. Ballet meets Argentinian tango is a terrific fusion. Astana Ballet performs several Balanchine ballets and this is every bit as sassy, sharp and daring as any of them.
Created to music by Astor Piazzolla, Lalo Schifrin, Carlos Gardel and the New York-based Japanese composer Sago Kosugi, everyone attacked the choreography with gusto. Of the women, Shomayeva stood out as much for her attitude as dancing, talking with her eyes and body language as much as her dancing. But it was the men who stood out, especially Sundet Sultanov and Baikadam Tungatarov in a powerful macho duet. Later, Ainaur Abilgazina and David Jonathan ignited the touch paper for a blazing finale that fully earned every scrap of applause it got.
Only founded in 2012, Astana Ballet is one of several state-supported initiatives aimed at projecting Kazakhstan as a modern country and a cultural force. At home in the very modern city of Nursultan (renamed from Astana after the leader who shaped it earlier this year), in 2016 it gained the luxury of a sparkling new theatre, all glass and steel, while abroad it tours widely, already having appeared across Europe and the United States. One hopes that one day we will see the company back in the UK. Hopefully at a bigger venue and with live musicians.
Astana Ballet are at the Linbury Theatre at the Royal Opera House to September 14. Visit www.roh.org.uk for details and tickets.