Hamburg Ballet’s Nijinsky Gala XLIV

Opera House, Hamburg
July 8, 2018

Maggie Foyer

John Neumeier’s Nijinsky Gala 2018 was a mix of of history and innovation which is much the tenor of the Neumeier Foundation: a careful curation of dance history while keeping the art form fresh and in the moment.

It was innovation to the fore with the State Youth Company, Bundesjugendballett, who presented the aptly titled John’s Dream – And What We Call Growing Up. Despite the fierce competition from star names and choreographies this work was one of the most memorable and unusual works of the evening. Choreographed and performed by the company of ten dancers and accompanied by a live music ensemble, it was an exciting use of contemporary movement and even more exciting contemporary ideas as text and dance were effectively interwoven. The ideas revolve around fears and hopes but predominantly they offer a clear-eyed and hopeful vision of how to tackle the future. It is an ensemble work, but Sara Ezzell and Ricardo Urbina Reyes were outstanding in their modern take on two individuals with shared emotions. What a breath of fresh air in a complex and uncertain world!

Bundesjugendballett in John’s Dream – And What We Call Growing UpPhoto Kiran West
Bundesjugendballett in John’s Dream – And What We Call Growing Up
Photo Kiran West

The history was mainly interpreted through Marius Petipa’s Sleeping Beauty and the little known Le Reveil de Flore. This pas de quatre, performed by graduate students from the Vaganova Ballet Academy, is reminiscent of an age of ballerina rivalry as each solo is performed to surpass the previous. Each is challenging and each beautifully executed but fittingly it was the eponymous Flora, danced by the superlative Maria Bulanova, definitely one to watch for the future, who came out tops. She had a fearsomely difficult solo, one that offered opportunities to demonstrate her skill in turns and elevation and to express it all with grace and elegance. It was a piece of living history thrillingly brought to life.

The Vaganova Ballet Academy in Le Reveil de FlorePhoto Kiran West
The Vaganova Ballet Academy in Le Reveil de Flore
Photo Kiran West

The Pierre Lacotte reconstruction of Petipa’s Grand Pas from The Pharaoh’s Daughter was danced by Bolshoi stars, Olga Smirnova and Artem Ovcharenko. It is a quaint piece of orientalism but Balanchine’s Diamonds danced with Semyon Chudin was the better showcase for Smirnova’s exquisite line and breath-taking clarity.

Watching two versions of the Grand Pas from The Sleeping Beauty was a unique opportunity to see the presentation of the work over the centuries. Alexei Ratmansky’s reconstruction for ABT, premiered in 2015, is the product of in depth research into huge reserves of archival material. In nineteenth-century fashion it favours the ballerina, a dominant Tiler Peck, with her partner, Herman Cornejo, confined to his place as background support while the second version was Nureyev’s staging coming decades later and witnessing the emergence of the male ballet star.

Tiler Peck and Herman Cornejo in Alexei Ratmansky's reconstructed The Sleeping BeautyPhoto Kiran West
Tiler Peck and Herman Cornejo
in Alexei Ratmansky’s reconstructed The Sleeping Beauty
Photo Kiran West

Ratmansky’s version is a period piece with Peck’s extensions rarely above 90 degrees, the musical phrases ending in a flowery flourish and a relationship that plays to the audience rather than a love match with her Prince. Cornejo, leapt into his solo with a flourish of beats, seldom seen in the modern versions, relishing his opportunity in the spotlight. However, the pirouettes, with a snappy preparation and the working leg placed low near the ankle, present a difficult image for modern viewers. The couple appeared later in Balanchine’s effervescent Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux where, although not ideally matched, Peck displayed phenomenal speed and attack and Cornejo danced with brilliance and abandon.

The Nureyev version of Beauty, staged by the National Ballet of Canada in 1972 and here danced by NBC principals, Jillian Vanstone and Francesco Gabriele Frola, has very different priorities. The male is a more visible presence in the pas de deux, standing in fiercely nailed fifths and adding to his role at every opportunity. Frola rose to the occasion, capturing the technical as well as the stylistic challenges. Vanstone matched in a performance that was beautifully phrased and finely polished.

Jillian Vanstone and Garbriele Frola in Rudolf Nureyev's The Sleeping BeautyPhoto Kuran West
Jillian Vanstone and Gabriele Frola
in Rudolf Nureyev’s The Sleeping Beauty
Photo Kuran West

There was still more Beauty this time with Alina Cojocaru, the loveliest of Auroras, enchanting her four suitors in Neumeier’s version of the Rose Adage. Later in the evening she danced the intensely romantic Awakening scene with Alexandr Trusch. Jurgen Rose has devised a magical setting and the choreography gives a wealth of nuance to this first meeting: a rewarding lyrical adjunct to the formality of Petipa’s high classicism which the couple brought to life with genuine feeling.

The remaining Petipa, or more correctly Ivanov, item, the duet from Act 2 of Swan Lake, retained the romantic theme. It was taken to the heights and the depths in a ravishing performance by Anna Laudere and Edvin Revazov. Laudere’s Odette was both shy and aristocratic, gracious and loving and Revazov was attendant on her every move. Rose’s costumes again played their part; the softer feathered tutus and sleeve detail taking us into a dream world.

Slotted in between all these famous works was an enchanting duet from Neumeier’s Don Juan given a memorable performance by Alexandre Riabko and Silvia Azzoni. Riabko seemed to embody the body and spirit of this mythical man, a brooding figure in wide brimmed hat and cloak. But it was Azzoni in angelic white robe soaring in high lifts who seemed to be the winner of his soul.

Heather Ogden and Guillaume Côtéin Lonely Town from Bernstein Dances by John NeumeierPhoto Kiran West
Heather Ogden and Guillaume Côté
in Lonely Town from Bernstein Dances by John Neumeier
Photo Kiran West

The modern ballet was interpreted mainly through the music of Leonard Bernstein and in Neumeier’s choreography: On the Town, Birthday Dances, Bernstein Serenade and Bernstein Dances. The Lonely Town duet from the latter is one of my favourites. Danced by Heather Ogden and Guillaume Côté, from NBC, it is cool and sophisticated while masking hidden depths of passion. The choreography, structured round the two chairs, is full of invention and it is a piece that stays in the memory long after the event.

Bernstein Serenade which formed the second act is in similarly understated modern vein as the three couples, guided or possibly misguided by love played by Trusch, explore the complexities of human attraction. It was a welcome chance to see more of the company’s top dancers, notable Héléne Bouchet and Christopher Evans as the first couple but it was somewhat crowded out on the very full programme and I would have enjoyed it better with more ‘white space’ around it. Birthday Dances gave the welcome opportunity to see more of young Aleix Martinez who made such an impact in Neumeier’s latest creation, Beethoven Project while Songfest, featured Carsten Jung and Ivan Urban, who are an essential part of any Nijinsky Gala.

In the opening On the Town the graduating dancers from the Hamburg School were introduced and the finale Candide from Bernstein Dances made a fitting climax led by an exuberant Lloyd Riggins in an impressive display of youthful energy. Neumeier’s Nijinsky Galas are a marathon both for dancers and audience and again this year it closed the season on a note of high celebration.