Old favourites, new challenges: Russian Ballet Icons Gala

London Coliseum
March 12, 2017

Charlotte Kasner

It’s hard to believe that the Russian Ballet Icons Gala (In the Steps of the Ballets Russes) is now in its 11th year but it is going from strength to strength. This year’s offering, kept closely under wraps, was a tribute to Diaghilev that looked backward, showcased the contemporary and offered something new. Like a box of exotic sweetmeats, old favourites mixed with new challenges, the dancers from major companies near and far all more than ably accompanied by the English National Ballet Philharmonic under the baton of Valery Ovsyanikov.

Fokine ran like a thread throughout the evening. His modernism, combined with a deep reverence of his classical roots not only showed the way forward for dance without attempting to dismiss the past but provided a blueprint for the survival of ballet in the 21st century. And it was Fokine’s impassioned pas de deux Scheherazade to Rimsky-Korsakov’s lush, orientalist-inspired score that got the evening off to a rip-roaring start. Of course, this demands solid technique, but Kritsina Kretova and Ivan Vasiliev also gave it every ounce of acting ability that they could muster, taking it way above the expected fireworks of the dancing alone.

Ivan Vasiliev in SheherazadePhoto Marc Haegeman
Ivan Vasiliev in Sheherazade
Photo Marc Haegeman

Ovsyanikov took the music for the Black Swan pas de deux from Swan Lake at a stately pace but neither Lyudmilla Konovalova nor Vadim Mungtagirov were in the least phased. Mungtagirov has really matured as a performer and his dancing belies his actual years. His rock-solid partnering gave Konovalova a secure base from which she flashed steely eyes and fair spiked her pointes into the ground. Knocking off double turns with positive insouciance, this could easily have been a closing pas de deux and certainly set a blazing trail for the others to follow.

Liisa Hämäläinen and Alexis Oliveira in Swan LakePhoto Marc Haegeman
Lyudmilla Konovalova and Vadim Mungtagirov in Swan Lake
Photo Marc Haegeman

Back to Fokine, and Maria Alexandrova and Vladislav Lantratov did not disappoint in The Firebird, especially Alexandrova, who has rather more of a challenge in this excerpt. As the plaintive rawness of the bassoon signalled the other-wordly realm of the Firebird, she flashed hither and thither against a backdrop of blood-red trees like a kingfisher glimpsed against a ray of sunlight. She burns from within and without, her desperate attempts to escape Ivan’s clutches totally avian. Fokine’s simple but effective device of instructing Ivan to hold her hand whilst she flutters and quivers at the extent of her arm epitomises a captive bird. Having granted her gift of a feather for her freedom, she skips off for all the world dipping like a small bird in flight.

The evening included excerpts from two-thirds of Balanchine’s Jewels tryptich, with Rubies first up. His work was very much the product of his background and environment and often celebrates the brashness and confidence of his sharp-footed Americans. Unfortunately, Sarah Lamb and Steven McCrae gave a rather pallid rendition that was altogether rather too polite to do either Stravinsky or Balanchine justice.

Sarah Lamb and Steven McCrae in RubiesPhoto Marc Haegeman
Sarah Lamb and Steven McCrae in Rubies
Photo Marc Haegeman

Husband and wife Lucia Laccara and Marlon Dino raised the temperature again with Arpino and Adamz’ Light Rain, a signature ballet for the Joffrey company that deserves to be seen in more repertoires. Scored for an unusual combination of banjo, violin, mandolin, bass, toumbec, finger cymbals, tambourine, claves, maraca and bamboo flute, it is a witty piece that was thoroughly embodied by the couple. Laccara has feet like scythes that punch out the percussive and pizzicato rhythms and is clearly totally simpatico with Dino. They have a fluidity that draws one in but are not at all precious about their performance and know when not to take themselves too seriously.

Lucia Laccara and Marlon Dino in Light RainPhoto Marc Haegeman
Lucia Laccara and Marlon Dino in Light Rain
Photo Marc Haegeman

Vladimir Shklyarov had quite a task ahead of him in the dark solo from the classic Petrushka after he has been flung back into the magician’s den. It is never easy to dance a dramatic section out of context, and this did not quite work on its own, even with foreknowledge of the scenario. Petrushka’s despair at his unrequited love for the ballerina and torment from the magician can only be guessed at and Shklyarov did not manage to convince.

Vladimir Shklyarov as PetrushkaPhoto Marc Haegeman
Vladimir Shklyarov as Petrushka
Photo Marc Haegeman

Many choreographers have tried to stamp their personalities on Swan Lake and Jean-Christophe Maillot’s updating is no exception. In theory, it fits perfectly into this tribute to Diaghilev as one can imagine that he, as an neophile par excellence, would have heartily approved. Liisa Hämäläinen and Alexis Oliveira were excellent as the rather gauche couple, making connections as if boy meets bird. Again, in the context of the entire work, it would have succeeded. Why, though, use recorded music while the orchestra, who had demonstrated their ability to more than do justice to Tchaikovsky’s score earlier in the evening, sat passively? The sound quality was very poor, with the volume being far too high and producing a tinny resonance that distracted from the dance.

Yulia Makhalina and Xander Parish in Le Spectre de la RosePhoto Marc Haegeman
Yulia Makhalina and Xander Parish in Le Spectre de la Rose
Photo Marc Haegeman

In Le Spectre de la Rose, Yulia Makhalina slipped into the role created by Karsavina like a hand into a glove, her astonishment at the embodiment of her ball-given rose as great as that when the dream fizzles away. Xander Parish had more of a challenge in filling Nijinsky’s shoes, the legendary leap out of the window (of necessity enacted into the wings) no doubt having grown in the collective imagination as it has never been captured on film. His performance was not as bright as his cerise costume, his partnering considerate rather than leading. His jumps are light and neat but, on this occasion at least, it was a rather perfunctory performance.

Evgenia Obraztsova and Dmitri Gudanov gave an admirable rendition of the classic pas de deux from The Sleeping Beauty. Obraztsova was assured with fine balance and she and Gudanov set exactly the right tone.

A dancer from the Vaganova Academy in The Fairy DollPhoto Marc Haegeman
A dancer from the Vaganova Academy in The Fairy Doll
Photo Marc Haegeman

The Fairy Doll used to be a staple of Anna Pavlova’s company but is now rarely performed in the west. Here, students of the Vaganova Academy had their chance to shine, which the leading three dancers certainly did. After a slightly wobbly start when nerves were apparent, it ended in fine style with assured technique and an understanding of character. In between, the Spanish dance was weak, the odd clack of castanets being unconvincing to an audience used to excellent Spanish classical dance with robust castanet technique. The Japanese variation is overly long and relies much on the wielding of a large fan, although the fact that Bayer’s music is not always able to match the suggestion of nationality does not help. A slight work that has not outlived its time, it was nevertheless worth including as a curiosity and there are probably not many works that would be so suitable for students.

A dancer from the Vaganova Academy in The Fairy DollPhoto Marc Haegeman
A dancer from the Vaganova Academy in The Fairy Doll
Photo Marc Haegeman

The very brief excerpt from de Frutos’ Les Enfants Terribles really did not work at all. General unfamiliarity made it very difficult to adjust to the setting and the small amount of dance was all but incomprehensible, however well executed. In this section, at least, there was no obvious connection with the singers and it ended abruptly, much to the puzzlement of all.

Svetlana Lunkina and Dmitri Gudanov in Afternoon of a FaunPhoto Marc Haegeman
Svetlana Lunkina and Dmitri Gudanov in Afternoon of a Faun
Photo Marc Haegeman

The need to clear the set and props from Les Enfants Terribles and set up the barres for the Robbins’ Afternoon of a Faun led to a somewhat uncomfortable hiatus but all was quickly forgiven with this delightful, self-referential take on the Nijinsky classic. Robbins’ fully expects the audience to know the original well, but this time absorbs the relationships in the context of uncertain, naive ballet students who tentatively find each other when both are stealing extra time in the studio. Their encounter is as brief and unconsummated as that of Noel Coward. Svetlana Lunkina and Dmitri Gudanov captured the innocence and veiled eroticism perfectly.

Diamonds, the second excerpt from Balanchine’s Jewels was much more watchable than the first, with Maria Kochetkova and Tyler Angle rendering suitably reverent performances. Their cool classicism nevertheless allowed for the brittle, bright diamond-like approach to shine through. A perfect anti-dote to the repressed ardour of Faun.

Liudmila Konovalova and Davide Dato in Theatrum VitaePhoto Marc Haegeman
Liudmila Konovalova and Davide Dato in Theatrum Vitae
Photo Marc Haegeman

This year, the gala was able to present a world premiere in the shape of Theatrum Vitae by German choreographer Xenia Wiest, four short ballets that outline a human journey from ancient Greece to the present, with a hint to the future. It was watchable if not wildly exciting, the major note of interest being in the adept and nuanced way with which arranger Julian Gallant stitched very disparate scores together into seamless cohesion.

Fokine’s The Dying Swan is something of an old war horse that perhaps now retains interest only through historical association. The much-parodied pathos of the piece is very difficult to pull off and Iana Salenko did not captivate.

Tamara Rojo and Isaac Hernandez in Don QuixotePhoto Marc Haegeman
Tamara Rojo and Isaac Hernandez in Don Quixote
Photo Marc Haegeman

Like the final fireworks reserved for the end of a sporting event, the grand pas from Don Quixote can be relied upon to thrill; the gala piece de resistance. Poor Isaac Hernandez was in the unenviable position of not only having to dance this fiendish piece but having to do it with his boss to boot. No pressure there then. Hats off to Tamara Rojo too, for as well as the not inconsiderable demands of running a very successful company, she remains fit enough to blaze in a stunning rendition of Kitri. No kittenish minx here, this is a purposeful, grown up woman who knows just how long she will string out the promise of a long balance. Hernandez was no slouch either, with cat-like landings, a jump like a flea and barrel turns that were dizzying.

Some of the world's greatest dancers gather after the Russian Ballet Icons Gala in LondonPhoto Marc Haegeman
Some of the world’s greatest dancers gather after the Russian Ballet Icons Gala in London
Photo Marc Haegeman