Old favourites overshadow new work: Ukrainian Ballet Gala

Sadler’s Wells, London
September 7, 2021

Ukrainian Ivan Putrov assembled some of his country’s finest dancers from major international companies, including the Ukrainian National Ballet alongside a sprinkling of those of other nationalities in an ambitious and largely enjoyable evening, the event coinciding with the 30th anniversary of Ukraine’s independence. The biggest disappointment was that injury meant he was unable to dance himself, being replaced in the opening work by Leo Dixon.

The second half’s divertissements proved by far the better part of the evening, the less usual contributions making the gala especially worthwhile.

Victor Gsovsky’s Grand Pas Classique lived up to all the gala expectations with a gorgeous blue and white tutu for Mayara Magri to top it all. She and Denys Cherevychko gave it their all.

Natalia de Froberville and Francesco Gabriele Frola in Diana & Actaeon
Photo Elliott Franks

Serge Lifar infamously fought a duel with the ‘Marquis’ de Cuevas over changes made to Suite en blanc which literally ended in tears and resulted in him sustaining a slight cut on his arm. He was clearly a better choreographer than a swordsman as evidenced in the delightful ‘Cigarette Solo’ from the ballet, danced by Natalia de Froberville. Ukraine has held regular international competitions in his name since 1994, perhaps resurrecting a reputation that was heavily tarnished by his collaboration during the occupation of Paris in the 1940s.

Back on the gala favourites, Olesia Shaytanova, Matthew Ball and Leo Dixon danced the perennial pas de trios from Le Corsaire with the required aplomb.

The Dying Swan is now quite difficult to watch unless performed by a dancer with massive charisma. Like Juliet, it is a role that demands a mature mind in a youthful body. Christine Shevchenko fell into the trap of a little too much frantic flapping which edged thoughts towards the many parodies that are around. The deceptively fiendish solo requires a steely core with the ports de bras emanating from the spine rather than rippling from the shoulders. When the arms are finally flung into 5th position en haute, it should smack of the desperation of the dying bird but here felt like an empty gesture.

Cesar Corrales and Christine Shevchenko in Don Quixote
at the Ukrainian Ballet Gala at Sadler’s Wells
Photo Elliott Franks

Georgian Vakhtang Vronsky was a soloist in Rostov-on-Don, Baku, Saratov and Tashkent and ballet master in Odessa and Kyiv. Forest Song is very much in the great Soviet tradition and includes a nod to the famous leap in Asaf Messerer’s Spring Waters pas de deux. Yuliia Moskalenko was a delicate foil to Volodymyr Kutuzov’s stolid partnering. It was a real treat.

The Gopak is a folk dance of the Dnieper Cossacks originating in central and eastern Ukraine and has come to be regarded almost as the national signature dance. The etymological derivation is from the Ukrainian for ‘hop’, surely an ironic reference to this most athletic of dances. Usually danced as a solo in Taras Bulba, here we had ‘three Ivans’ enabling Daniil Silkin, Vladyslav Bosenko and Maksym Bilokrynytskyi to shine.

Anna Muromtseva and Fernando Montaño brought us back to more familiar territory with a pas de deux from La Bayadère swiftly followed by (one of) Five Tangos danced by a suitably insouciant Denys Cherevychko.

Natalia de Froberville and Francesco Gabriele Frola gave us a dynamic Diana and Actaeon in a version choreographed by the great Agrippina Vaganova in 1935 as an insert in a production of La Esmeralda. It is a virtuoso piece, Actaeon hinting at the stag that he will become with barrel turns and big jumps and Diana plunging into deep arabesques and holding endless balances en pointe. Exciting stuff.

Countless galas end with Don Quixote fireworks but Putrov gilded the lily, bringing the whole ensemble together to close the evening with a suite derived from the ballet. Christine Shevchenko and Cesar Corrales provided the usual thrills.

Matthew Ball, Leo Dixon and Mayara Magri
in the world premiere of System A/I by Ludovic Ondiviela
Photo Elliott Franks

Back to the first half, and the world première of System A/I, choreographed by Ludovic Ondiviela, which grew out of a short duet created for Men in Motion. It considers the growing use of A/I and the consequences of a world where artificial intelligence has replaced human connection, with obvious implications for our emotional lives.

It disappointed. Accompanied by blandly derivative music by a plethora of composers, even at one point seemingly including a recording of a creepy numbers station, it turned out to be a rather muddled piece. Matters were not helped by its being semi-lit, rendering much the detail of the choreography all-but invisible. There was a lot of frantic arm-flapping and no dance or dramatic development to speak of, dramaturg Olga Danylyuk spinning out a thin story until it broke, providing little characterisation or clarity along the way.

Whilst it’s always welcome when ballet tackles important contemporary issues, the danger that a human will forgo intimacy with another human in favour of the robot, duly unwrapped onstage is the least of our worries.

As much as Putrov’s employing a live orchestra should be applauded loudly (as indeed should his continuing to stage events like this), what was overall a fine evening, however, was let down by the Paradisal Players. The brass cracked their opening notes, and flutes and strings sounded strangely flat. Alexander Ingram conducted in a way that left delicate supporting rhythms instead thumping with little balance or even creating dance-like phrasing. Galas inevitably need to make use of recorded music but here, it might just have done the composers and dancers more justice.