State Opera House, Hamburg
June 30, 2019
Despite the theme of ‘Song and Dance’, this year’s Nijinsky Gala avoided the usual glitter and virtuoso thrills to include works of thoughtful depth and contrast, making it a most unusual evening. It was also the time to say goodbyes to several valued colleagues.
Principal dancer, Carolina Agüero, who joined the company in 2006 signed off dancing Princess Natalia in Illusions – like Swan Lake with Alexandr Trusch as the King. The final pas de deux was a fitting finale for this much-loved dancer.
Carsten Jung said his farewell with a signature role: the title role in Liliom. Jung, one of Hamburg’s most distinctive dancers joined the company in 1994 rising to principal in 2004. He showed his mettle as the hard-living carousel barker who could still be touched by a heart of gold – Alina Cojocaru’s Julie – whose vulnerability was palpable. Although the duet came at the end of a long first act the audience showed their appreciation in unrestrained applause while a procession of his former dance partners each gave a rose and finally Cojocaru offered the pink balloon, a memento from Liliom.
Karen Azatyan, who has been with the company since the 2014 season took his leave dancing a role he created, Gabriele D’Annunzio in Duse, with guest Alessandra Ferri as Eleonora Duse herself, the role she too created. They recreate the passionate affair of Duse and the unfaithful dramatist, a seduction with cruel undertones as he tosses a rose on her bed and, adjusting his trousers, leaves without a backward glance. Ferri is perfect: the right dancer, in the right role, at the right time in her distinguished career. Every performance she gives is one to treasure.
Thankfully not yet taking their leave, two company stalwarts, Ivan Urban and Alexandre Riabko delivered Opus 100 – for Maurice. Danced to Simon and Garfunkel greats: ‘Old Friends’ and ‘Bridge over Troubled Water’, it was definitely what the audience wanted. This short work needs two great dancers with history to carry the weight of memories that come with it; and this it got.
In a programme that showed the breadth of John Neumeier’s choreographic skills, only two works were by other choreographers. Two and Only by Wubke Kuindersma to music composed, played and sung by Michael Benjamin, was performed by Jozef Varga and Giovanni Adriano Princic from Het Nationale Ballet. A duet for man and boy, it has the captivating charm of American folk ballads. The choreography is laid-back with moments that catch and hold the imagination and a lump-in-the-throat end as the boy slips quietly from the man’s embrace. Varga and Princip did it proud.
Permanent Yesterday, choreographed by Fei Bo was danced by Qiu Yunting and Wu Sicong from the National Ballet of China. Dancing to a Buddhist text, these two dancers of exquisite line working with quiet intensity, wove a piece of lyrical poetry.
Cao Shuci and Sun Ruichen, also from the National Ballet of China danced Neumeier’s ‘The Lonely One in Autumn’ from his Song of the Earth. Each element of the work is shaped with artistry: from the simple lines of the costumes to the sloping mound of grass green, it is a masterwork and they made it their own.
The evening opened on the light-hearted Bernstein Dances followed by Shall we Dance? and closed on the last two movements of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, the duet given a fine interpretation by Svetlana Lunkina from the National Ballet of Canada, partnered by Christopher Evans. These ensemble pieces gave the company their chance to dance and gave the evening its warm spirit.
The emotional heart came in Dario Franconi’s solo, ‘Erbarme dich’, from the St Matthew Passion, however. In an act akin to self-flagellation he stripped away all pretence and reached into the soul of this magnificent work. It was an extraordinary inclusion in a gala evening and one that only Neumeier could do. It was a credit to Franconi’s passion that he held the packed house spellbound by the intensity of his performance.
It was preceded by Lewin’s solo from Anna Karenina danced by another Canadian guest, Felix Paquet from the National Ballet, clad in checked skirt and farmer’s hat. The humour of the hay bales and tractor prevent the deep feelings from descending into sentimentality and found perfect balance of bucolic humour and idealism in a very appealing performance.
The Bundesjugendballett, the Hamburg Youth Company, dancing to Aaron Copland’s Simple Gifts were well placed to follow the Passion. Mature beyond their years, they invested heart and soul into Neumeier’s choreography that blends spiritual and folk with an honesty to match the music.
Forming the second act and aglow with pearl-like lustre, was At Midnight, Mahler’s setting of poems by Friedrich Rückert, played by pianist, James Baillieu and sung by baritone, Benjamin Appl. Appl had a busy night, also accompanying the Bernstein Dances and he flawlessly integrated into this work of finely-honed beauty. The dancers were some of Hamburg’s finest, led by Edvin Revazov, Anna Laudere and Silvia Azzoni with Mayo Arii, Xue Lin, Jacopo Bellussi and Christopher Evans. The setting is simple while the detail in the technique and the complexity of the relationships are, by contrast, challenging. In the hands of these artists it was spell-binding and, in a curious way, anchored the evening.
For sumptuous display, we had to wait until the opening of the third act with the grand pas in an extravagant setting of costume and ornamentation by Jürgen Rose. In Hélène Bouchet and Jacopo Bellussi it had a right royal couple and Alexandr Trusch added the brilliance in his virtuoso performance as Puck. There was more glamour in the rain of gold confetti on a stage packed with dancers from all corners of the world. It was one of the most memorable of Neumeier’s Nijinsky Galas with a range of works that found such natural harmony and balance that the evening of nearly six hours, seemed hardly long at all.