A splendid celebration: Ballet Icons Gala 2021

London Coliseum
November 26, 2021

The annual Ballet Icons Gala, presented by Ensemble Productions, returned to the London Coliseum on November 26 with its usual programme of classical and contemporary new works and gala favourites performed by leading artists from around the world. It was a splendid celebration of all that’s best in dance.

Nicoletta Manni and Jakob Feyferlick opened the evening with an old favourite, the Black Swan pas de deux from Swan Lake. They set the tone for precision with just the right amount of excitement without being flashy. Manni also sets a high bar for fouettés, knocking off doubles with seeming nonchalance.

Yasmine Naghdi and Marcelino Sambé followed that with ‘The Hardest Button To Button’ from Wayne McGregor’s Chroma. It was certainly a contrast to the classicism of the opening, with Naghdi especially quite superb.

Leonore Baulac and Julian MacKay in Giselle
Photo Jack Devant

Léonore Baulac and Julian MacKay brought us back to old-fashioned classicism with a very delicate rendition of the Act II pas de deux from Giselle. Baulac has been an étoile at Paris Opera ballet since 2016, a richly deserved honour. Her understanding of the role is there for all to see. She melds tradition with sharply honed technique, including the oft-omitted demi rises before the extensions to second, which creates the impression that she is about to float into the air and is reminiscent of that greatest of exponents of the role, the late Carla Fracci. MacKay’s sensitive partnering aided her at every step. He demonstrated neat batterie and subtle acting that allowed him to possess the stage without upstaging. It would be a real treat to see this pairing in the full-length version.

Filipa de Castro and Carlos Pinillos in Passo Continuo by Mauro Bigonzetti
Photo Jack Devant

Filipa de Castro and Carlos Pinillos, both clad in plain black costumes, with him bare-chested, performed Passo Continuo an electric pas de deux with vibrant and daring choreography by Mauro Bigonzetti. It is an exercise in multiple methods of weight-bearing at various heights with sudden semi-drops and languid extensions that surprise and delight. Although created for the modern ballet company Aterballetto, its challenges were matched brilliantly by the more classically-orientated couple, a reminder of just how versatile we require dancers to be today.

Sergio Bernal in Overture
Photo Jack Devant

Sergio Bernal danced the UK premiere of his Overture, a sort of nuevo flamenco. Again, it is technically challenging it requires the dancer to both lift from the feet and waist and push into the ground. It is a stunning piece which Bernal infused with a huge amount of masculine grace. If there was one quibble, it was that the zapateado was mostly inaudible (the image in the programme suggests his soft boots lack flamenco nails although they do seem to have a metal tap plate at the toe). Bernal also bagged the most stunning costume of the evening: plush tights in deepest red gilded with leaf pattern across the pelvis and on the calf. Perhaps a suggestion of a suit of lights? It peeled off in petals at the waist, Banal’s bare torso rising out of the ‘flower’ like a modern-day spectre de la rose. He got a deserved roar on his final curtain call.

Another UK premiere, Snow Storm, choreographed by Yuri Possokhov and based on a short story by Pushkin, took us into deepest Russia with a backdrop of a birch forest against which Lucía Lacarra and Matthew Golding danced two melancholy but hopeful lovers. Life and Fate was chronicled famously by Vassily Grossman. Snow Storm is love and fate in a way that is uniquely understood in Russia.

Lucia Lacarra and Matthew Golding in Snow Storm by Yuri Possokhov
Photo Jack Devant

Marianela Núñez and Vadim Muntagirov ended the first half in glittering style with a splendid rendition of the Grand pas de deux from Don Quixote. Muntagirov has matured greatly as an artist and now has an assurance that adds to his youthful bravura.

Opening the second half, Katja Khaniukova and Francesco Gabriele Frola carried in similar vein with another dazzling effort form the 19th-century canon, Paquita.

Ksenia Ovsyanik and Denis Viera changed the tempo and temperament with George Williamson’s Mesh pas de deux, created in Berlin in 2018. It is a short, atmospheric and moody classical duet, although not particularly memorable. The unflattering costumes also did not show the dancers at their best.

Back to the familiar, Maria Kochetkova and Jeffrey Cirio danced the sublime Grand pas de deux from The Sleeping Beauty with just as much precision and panache as the previous classic works.

Kirill Radev’s pleasing At Sunset with Léonore Baulac and Julian MacKay replaced the promised Osipova and Kittelberger’s Ashes.

Liudmila Konovalova and Giuseppe Picone in Picone’s Vivaldi Summer pas de deux
Photo Jack Devant

Sunset led us into a blazing yellow summer (backdrop and costumes) and Giuseppe Picone’s Vivaldi Summer pas de deux, danced by himself and Liudmila Konovalova. The latter entered upstage in a long, slow walk trailing a vast train of yellow tulle like a bata de cola. A hint of flaming June perhaps? Despite the cold, wet November evening we were immediately plunged into the sunshine and some spirited choreography. On this evidence, Picone appears to have a promising career ahead of him when he retires from dancing.

Katja Khaniukova and Aitor Arrieta danced a duet from Edward Clug’s Radio and Juliet, recently performed in full to acclaim by Birmingham Royal Ballet. The only real blip of the gala, it did little for me as, to a dismal pop song, it plunged us right back to November with a vengeance, as we witness a flashback after Juliet wakes from a coma. Mercifully it was short.

Maia Makhateli and Daniil Simkin had a lot to live up to after a very full and largely very enjoyable evening that gave us no less than four UK premières. Rounding things off, they did not disappoint by the big pas de deux from Le Corsaire. Simkin has breathtaking control and panther-soft landings in spite of attaining great height and ballon along with the bravura.

Welcome back! I can’t wait until March 13 next year when another Ballet Icons Gala will celebrate the 150th anniversary of the birth of Sergei Diaghilev.