February 25, 2018
Running since 2006, the annual Russian Ballet Icons Gala has become a star-studded fixture in London’s ballet calendar. Dancers jetted in from across Europe for the one-night spectacular that featured much-loved classics and gala favourites alongside some more contemporary works, and two world premieres.
A delicate opening to the gala was afforded by Mayara Magri and Stanislaw Wegrzyn of The Royal Ballet in Coppélia which, out of context, is stripped of its sinister leanings. In many ways, it seems much closer to the opening scenes of Giselle and afforded the couple plenty of opportunity to shine in a ballet that is not renowned for fireworks. It is Petipa’s 1894 version on which most modern traditional versions are based so, all in all, an apt choice for a Russian-themed gala.
The world premiere of Ilya Zhivoy’s A Flashback was stunning. With a haunting score by Arvo Pärt, half minimalist angst and half cathedral choral, it is perfectly suited to the pliant bodies of dancers Ekaterina Kondaurova and Roman Belyakov from the Mariinsky Ballet. The dance relives the range of their emotions. At one point, Kondaurova curves her body into an ellipse, coiled round Belyakov’s body. He proceeds to spin her round like a quoit spiralling down a pole in a “how did they do that” moment that took the breath away. There will be a queue of dancers eager to try this one.
Another Royal Ballet coupling, Francesca Hayward and Federico Bonelli, gave a creditable rendition of the pas de deux from Act II of Giselle, although Bonelli’s Albrecht rather lacked character. He seemed to peer myopically in the wrong direction when Giselle the Wili slipped from his grasp rather than sense that he was trying to hold the equivalent of a hologram. There was no sense either of his emotional and physical exhaustion as he dropped to the stage. Hayward was more convincing although her initial promenade en arabesque was a little sticky.
Petit’s La Rose Malade is a gorgeous work; an antidote to Spectre de la Rose in many ways. Created for Maya Plisetskaya in 1973 and set to the famous adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth, it could easily descend into cliché and sentimentality in less secure hands than Claudia d’Antonio and Guiseppe Picone of the Teatro di San Carlo, Naples. Here, one not only gets the sense that the girl is dying, but that the relationship had always been tempestuous. She seems burned out by her own flame, her arms frantically windmilling in her death throes and snatching at the restraining embrace of her lover’s arms as she seeks to fly towards the end.
Duarto’s Cello Duet from his Multiplicity. Forms of Silence and Emptiness, a work about the life of Bach, places Alexei Orlenco (Staatsballett Berlin) in unflattering 18th-century garb with his sister Polina Semionova (American Ballet Theatre and the Staatsballett Berlin) as his ‘cello’ in an equally unflattering leotard that looks like a 1920’s bathing suit. The poor girl is upended and spun round like a jazz double bass before Semionov saws away again with his ‘bow’. At best this was dull, at worst crudely misogynistic.
Some relief then from the Bolshoi’s Maria Alexandrova and Vladislav Lantratov in a corking Don Quixote pas de deux. In a red, black and gold tutu to die for, Alexandrova flashed fire along with her snapping fan. Not to be outdone, Lantratov gave as good as he got with some crowd-pleasing gestural banter between the pair, for all the world like the rivalry between Romantic ballerinas. Single and double fouttées were whipped off nonchalantly. Lantrov’s ballon and soft-pawed landings were a delight.
The second world premiere of the evening, Julian Nicholas MacKay’s Warrior of Light, proved an anti-climax. Set to an unmemorable score by Jean-Gabriel Rauynaud and Cedric Baravaglio, it seems more hackneyed 19th-century revival than new ballet. It is perhaps not fair to judge a full-length work on a chunk extracted for a gala, especially when the whole work has not been seen, but it really does not work as a stand-alone piece. It tells a portion of the tale of Russian artist and spiritualist Nicholas Roerich, whose major achievement was in underpinning the signing of the eponymous 1935 pact that sought to protect artistic and scientific institutions and historic monuments from the ravages of war.
In Warrior of Light, Roerich is supposedly creating three canvasses but what we see is a bayadère-type woman, an unidentifiable man and a tutued girl (another wardrobe creation to die for) running around the stage for no fathomable reason. It screamed ‘cultural appropriation’.
So to a perennial favourite staple of galas: the Black Swan pas de deux from Swan Lake where Viktoria Tereshkina from the Mariinsky made a very convincing foil to Xander Parish. One almost expected Tershkina’s image to blur as she knocked of the tours de la salle at lightning speed, never mind even more fouettés. I fantasised that the encore might be all three fouttée-ing ladies in a literal spin-off! No problem seeing why this Siegfried was enchanted, nor why he showed it by the brio of his own dancing.
The next swan was of a totally different hue, literally and figuratively. Ricardo Cue’s The Swan, danced by Sergio Bernal of the Ballet Nacional de España, is a stunning twist on the now rather clichéd female version. Done brilliantly, Fokine’s version can still astound but the edge has been knocked off its original pathos by endless prepetition, poor executions and inevitable parodies. Cue brings it back to life, ironically of course by depicting death.
The opening is stunning, the stage flooded with pale blue light as we see Bernal’s swan take flight. The roar of the air as it lifts the swan’s wings is all that accompanies the movement then slowly, the Saint-Saens trickles in and we watch the swan in its final wing beats. I recalled friends telling me how they once witnessed a swan trapped as a lake froze, the ice too thin to support a human, too thick for a boat; and so it died, slowly and agonisingly as the people watched, helpless to intervene. I feel almost as though I too have now witnessed that death.
Next to the sillier antics of La Sylphide as the rather dense James is bewitched by the mischievous fairy. Anna Tikhomirova (Bolshoi Ballet) made a delightful, featherweight sylph and, much as I usually feel the urge to snip of their ridiculous little wings with the biggest pair of shears that I can find, I almost felt sorry for this one, knowing that James was destined to kill her. Artem Ovcharenko (also Bolshoi) shone as James with twinkling batterie and a neatness and softness to his landings that verged on perfection. In fact, all the women were virtually soundless in their landings, so it can be done.
It is a pity that we rarely get the chance to see the full-length Legend of Love by Yuri Grigorovich, now almost sixty years old. Whereas the orientalism of Warrior of Light seemed dated, Legend does not. Watching Tereshkina in the pas de deux was almost like seeing Maya Plisetskaya’s ghost. Many people in the audience would have seen her last on that very stage.
The same could be said of Nureyev. So many people still remember him vividly that mere impersonation would not work. There were times when this Nureyev pas de deux seemed to have turned back the clock, so accurately did Lantratov embody the style and panache that took the world by storm and so suitably illustrated by lavish Liszt. Let us hope that we do not have to wait too long to see the whole ballet that itself is no stranger to controversy.
The evening ended with another gala favourite, the pas de deux from Le Corsaire. One felt for the Mariinsky’s poor Kimin Kim who fell awkwardly on his third jump but how professionally he recovered his nerve to soar from the stage and turn like a dervish. Krysanova seemed glued to the spot on her fouttées and have ankles of steel as she stayed en pointe for an age.
It is no easy thing to continue to provide dancing of such calibre year after year. The skill in deciding on the mix of repertoire reminds us both of the traditions of the past and leaves us feeling that ballet is still in safe hands in spite of all the vicissitudes of the dance world in contemporary Russia.