The 16th World Ballet Festival on demand

Programme A
(Programme B)
Streaming by Japan Performing Arts Foundation (NBS) to January 10, 2022

The World Ballet Festival, held triennially in Tokyo since 1976, is one of the most prestigious and largest international ballet festivals and is a pioneer of its kind. Although forced to downsize by the Covid pandemic, the 16th edition still managed to go ahead in August with 24 leading dancers from the world’s major companies performing in two programmes of ballet classical to contemporary at Tokyo Bunka Kaikan. Needless to say, everything is straight out of the top drawer.

Apart from the closing The Dying Swan, Programme A is all pas de deux, mostly showing different faces of romance. Hannah O’Neill and Mathias Heymann of the Paris Opera Ballet get things off to a youthful and sunny start with the pas de deux from August Bournonville’s Flower Festival in Genzano. O’Neill is beautifully light and delicate, while Heymann combines height with lightness and ease in his jumps, almost seeming to suspend for a split second at the top of each one. Perhaps best of all, they convinced as a couple telling how they felt for each other.

Hannah O’Neill and Mathias Heymann in Flower Festival in Genzano
Photo Kiyonori Hasegawa

There was more precision, albeit of a formal, sculptural nature, from Maria Alexandrova and Vladislav Lantratov of The Bolshoi Ballet in the Raymonda pas de deux. Alexandrova, tall and with an almost regal authority, shows what a super technician, especially in her variation with its claps and dazzling relevé passés.

The emotional intensity ramps up several notches the spine-tingling moment that the title character steps through the huge mirror in Tatiana’s bedroom in John Cranko’s Onegin. It’s impossible to resist the impassioned choreography as Dorothée Gilbert (Paris Opera Ballet) is carried through her dream by Friedemann Vogel (Stuttgart Ballet, making a remarkable seventh appearance at the Festival), allowing her body to wind around his in surrender.

Friedemann Vogel and Dorothée Gilbert in the Act 1 pas de deux from Onegin
Photo Kiyonori Hasegawa

There’s more Onegin later, when we rejoin the couple for the final Act 3 pas de deux, with Vogel now partnered by his Stuttgart colleague Elisa Badenes. Their intensity, the desperation of Onegin as he is reduced to begging Tatiana for another chance, her letting go in a throwback to the passions of times past is all too real.

Between the dances are interviews (not subtitled in English although some dancers speak in in English) and behind-the-scenes footage that show how the Festival was made possible under unprecedented circumstances. After Onegin, Vogel, explains how such events are as important for the performers as the audience, and how the dancers gain inspiration from each other, a point later echoed by Badenes.

Friedemann Vogel and Elisa Badenes in the Act 3 pas de deux from Onegin
Photo Kiyonori Hasegawa

Fireworks of a different sort come in the famous pas de deux for Medora and Ali from Le Corsaire. In front of an evocative projection of the sun setting over a shimmering sea seen through the mouth of a cave (one of many excellent backdrops), Kimin Kim (Mariinsky Ballet) soars through his variation, each landing absolutely pinpoint too. Equally accurate, and taken at considerable speed, are Bolshoi Ballet star Ekaterina Krysanova’s fouettés. Needless to say, it got the biggest cheers so far

Coming right up to date, Madoka Sugai and Alexandr Trusch of Hamburg Ballet dance John Neumeier’s Persistent Persuasion, created in 2020 to mark the 100th anniversary of the peaceful definition of the German-Danish border, including South Jutland’s reunification with Denmark.

Alexandr Trusch and Madoka Sugai in Persistent Persuasion
Photo Kiyonori Hasegawa

Danced to the Adagio cantabile second movement of Beethoven’s Sonata No.7 for violin and piano, it’s a sensitive dance in which every step seems meaningful. As the title indicates, it’s about achieving harmony through peaceful and persistent persuasion. It’s not without its ‘disagreements’, the couple sometimes counteracting one another, but there’s always an ongoing sense of the two dancers ‘working things out’ through a conversation in movement, as indeed the two instruments seem to be having in music.

For anyone used to the unbridled outpouring of feelings in MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet, Leonid Lavrovsky’s balcony scene comes as a bit of a disappointment. The most romantic thing in it is the shooting star glimpsed on the projection as Juliet first appears. Olga Smirnova (Bolshoi Ballet) and Vladimir Shklyarov (Mariinsky Ballet) dance it finely, but there is a lot of pausing in sculptural poses.

Vladimir Shklyarov and Olga Smirnova in Romeo and Juliet
Photo Kiyonori Hasegawa

After the return to Onegin, the first programme rounds off, not with the usual upbeat fizzing virtuosity, but with Mikhail Fokine’s The Dying Swan. Maybe it just comes around too much, and too often seems to be a parody of itself, but I have long struggled with it. The Bolshoi Ballet’s Svetlana Zakharova does dance it sublimely, though. Her incredibly fluid arms are (if you’ll pardon the pun) to die for.

Presented by the Japan Performing Arts Foundation, The World Ballet Festival is available online to January 10, 2022. Tickets cost ¥6,000 for one programme or ¥11,000 for both, plus a fee ¥420 (approximately £46.20 and £72.80 respectively), available from