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Posts Tagged ‘Bennet Gartside’

It’s been over 2 years since Alina Cojocaru danced a MacMillan ballet at Covent Garden. While the public in Washington DC and Havana were able to see her Manon last summer, Londoners who had been dreaming of seeing her in Mayerling at the start of the autumn season had to hold their breaths a little longer and await her return to MacMillan in the role of Juliet, the very same role she had danced in the autumn of 2007.

Alina Cojocaru and Johan Kobborg in Kenneth MacMillan's Romeo and Juliet. Photograph by Elliott Franks ©

The wait was most definitely worth it. If before her Juliet was moving, now she is heartwrenching. She has matured the role, refined it, added nuance and experience, less the innocent teenager more the tragic outcast, headstrong-yet-vulnerable girl transformed by love. These qualities are evident, for instance, in the scene where Juliet, already secretly married to Romeo, tries to challenge her parents as they impose the nobleman Paris on her.  As she tries to fight back, throwing her fists at the father, pleading to the mother, the realisation sinks in that she is alone in this, her whole body expressing the humiliation Juliet has suffered.

Whereas 2 years ago she might have played the scene where Juliet hides under the covers with a slight hint of comic relief now it looks like desperation, the will to disintegrate and not have to deal with an impossible situation, grief written in her face.  This time few in the audience were chuckling.

Alina Cojocaru as Juliet in Kenneth MacMillan's Romeo & Juliet. Photograph by Elliott Franks ©

The other pivotal moment in Alina’s interpretation comes when she discovers the lifeless Romeo in the Capulet tomb, her desperate howl of pain – albeit silent – is louder than Prokofiev’s sublime score. Her last gesture slowly motioning at the faint light above the tomb suggests the hope at a reunion with Romeo in heaven, almost as if she can already see their souls transcending.

While Johan Kobborg might not be my dream cast Romeo he is unquestionably a perfect partner for Alina’s Juliet. If technically her Juliet was arguably on better form than his Romeo, when they dance their bodies move lyrically as one, in full sync. Together they delivered a balcony scene full of passion and romantic abandonment, as if they had no other care in the world. They are well matched in temper too, Johan’s headlong Romeo seeming like the kind of guy who would really drop everything in his life once he fell head over heels in love. The extent of his impassioned nature is also very convincingly portrayed after Mercutio’s death, guilt reaching boiling point as he rushes towards Tybalt to retaliate.

Johan Kobborg as Romeo and Alina Cojocaru as Juliet. Photograph by Elliott Franks ©

With a strong supporting cast full of wonderful performances, from Brian Maloney’s limber, handsomely cast Mercutio, Bennet Gartside’s chilling Tybalt (his death scene one of the most poignant I have ever seen) to Laura Morera’s unparalleled Harlot and Sergei Polunin’s stylish lead Mandolin this is really a performance not to be missed. This same cast is performing again next Wednesday and I would urge those still thinking about it to beg, borrow or steal a ticket.

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The Royal Ballet in Ashton's Tales of Beatrix Potter. Photo: Johan Persson / ROH ©

In their final programme of the year The Royal Ballet celebrates Sir Frederick Ashton, the founder choreographer who gave this company a wonderful classical repertory and British ballet a defining style. Initially I thought of this double bill as a case of odd pairing since, on one corner, appealing to the Ashton addicts and older crowds, there’s the very chic Les Patineurs, and on the other, practically screaming “kids only”, the Tales of Beatrix Potter. Why match them?

Mr. Clement Crisp, the eminent Financial Times dance critic, has a strong opinion on Potter: “My reaction is to remind myself that the right place for a piglet is a roasting-dish, that squirrels are vermin and that mouse-traps are cheap”. But we must try to practice what we preach and approach ballets with an open mind. Having seen neither piece before, off I  went looking forward to a feast of Ashtonian body bends and patterns.

Cindy Jourdain and Laura McCulloch in Ashton's Les Patineurs. Photo: Johan Persson / ROH ©

Featuring a créme de la créme opening night cast I thought Les Patineurs was a ballet of sheer beauty. Ashton conjures a vintage ice rink and through the way the dancers move and the various divertissements we get glimpses of couples, groups and individuals, all having a jolly good time skating. To replicate the feel of dancing on ice the chassé is heavily used, as are fouettés and various forms of spinning and walking on pointe. Soloists emerge from the group dances, developing their own signature moves on ice, with blue girl Laura Morera giving a masterclass on the suppleness of the Ashtonian back and fellow blue skater Yuhui Choe combining quick footsteps with the most graceful upper body and showing off some amazing fouettés en tournant.

The central white couple was handsomely danced by Sarah Lamb and Rupert Pennefather. This pas de deux is such an elegant portrait of a couple in love, beautiful dance emanating from the simplest of stories, so truly and deeply Ashton. But the evening’s scene stealer is Steven McRae as the Blue Boy, a role that seemed created on him as it demands a combination of panache and precision, both of which he is able to deliver by the bucketload. Delighted, poised and completely in character as the ice-rink show-off he dazzled the house in series of sparkling beaten brisés and a jaw-dropping combination of turns on fourth gear.

Sarah Lamb in Ashton's Les Patineurs. Photo: Johan Persson / ROH ©

Next item on the bill, the parade of cute furry animals in Tales of Beatrix Potter, with their nostalgic, just-fresh-off-the-books manner, might have won over quite a few cynics in the audience. As a dance piece it might not be very complex, but consider this: every character onstage is dressed in a bulky costume weighing between 4 and 5 kilos, with the animals heads an extra 2 kilos (our thanks to Bennet Gartside – aka Bennet76 – for this interesting bit of Potter trivia). The fact that they can dance any steps at all baffles us, with the quick and imaginative footwork for Squirrel Nutkin (Paul Kay) and Mr. Jeremy Fisher (Kenta Kura), the underlying elegance of the pas de deux between Pigling Bland (Bennet Gartside) and Pig-Wig (Laura Morera), the quirky pantomime between Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle (Jonathan Howells) and the Fox (Gary Avis) seeming like a miracle.

There were, of course, plenty of kids amongst us but I could just as well see several adults gasping and smiling while Hunca Munca and Tom Thumb smashed the plates from the doll house. And so, by unleashing our inner kid and opening a window to a simpler past where the biggest problem was finishing homework before a good bedtime story, Potter weaves its Christmas magic. It worked on us.

Kenta Kura as Mr. Jeremy Fisher in Tales of Beatrix Potter. Photo: Johan Persson / ROH ©

Ashton’s Les Patineurs and Tales of Beatrix Potter will be at the Royal Opera House until December 31. For booking details visit the ROH website.

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Alina Cojocaru and Rupert Pennefather in Diamonds. Copyright belongs to its respective owners. Source: via The Telegraph

Alina Cojocaru and Rupert Pennefather in Diamonds. Copyright belongs to its respective owners. Source: via The Telegraph

Last week saw Balanchine’s Jewels return to the Royal Opera House to send off the 2008/2009 ballet season in glittering style. A few things have changed since its premiere in 2007: gone the lavish frocks and sizeable jewels to match those onstage, as worn by first night audiences the other side of the credit crunch; present lots of cast changes and regrettable absences due to injury, most notably leading ladies Zenaida Yanowsky and Sarah Lamb who could not reprise their roles in Rubies and Edward Watson  who, sadly, did not partner Tamara Rojo in Emeralds this time.

Diamonds

Thankfully at least one thing has remained the same: Alina Cojocaru’s radiance in Diamonds. If anything, Cojocaru’s reading of this grand ballerina role has become even better second time around. She is more shrouded in mystery, less the fairy tale princess, more the multifaceted precious stone. Alongside her noble partner Rupert Pennefather she puts on a dazzling display of delicacy in her dance, she is a vision that Rupert pursues and tries to enfold and lock in his arms as if worried she could vanish at any moment. If her first performance last week – more careful – made me admire the beauty of her regal line, her musical phrasing and her lush backbends, the second made my heart skip quite a few beats in its technical precision:  back after one year were Alina’s sharp turns, her lightning speed chaînés combined with that delicate, heart melting quality which makes Cojocaru’s dancing seem as rare as a precious stone and so uniquely endearing. Rupert Pennefather was more than an able partner, generating some unforgettable moments from his own solo work. As he turns in his grande pirouette during the Scherzo (the 3rd movement in this arrangement of the symphony) he advocates to us what Balanchine aimed for, he makes us see clearly all the respective turns in Tchaikovsky’s music. This physical translation of the music is evident in both dancers and in this respect I find them here – as I did in 2007 – very well matched.

So eloquent is the choreography in Diamonds you could think Tchaikovsky’s music would have been especially commissioned for the ballet and not the other way round, revealing to us just how far the genius of Balanchine went. Beginning with patterns formed by the corps, with two soloists later cutting through the lines with delicate pas de chats as they were diamond dust, or even snowflakes on loan from The Nutcraker, these soloists are joined by two further women who seem to trace the choreographic motifs and music box paths for the lead couple to dance on. Their own cavaliers join in later and the whole ensemble present a truly majestic finale, gloved women et al., in a grand ballroom. Composed of the final four movements of Tchaikovsky’s Third Symphony, Diamonds is in itself, the third and final movement within the symphony of dance formed by Balanchine’s Jewels, where Emeralds is the adagio and Rubies the allegro.

Emeralds

While I am, as you would have guessed, very much a “Diamonds girl” I also take delight in the dreamy and elegiac qualities of Emeralds, particularly as executed by Tamara Rojo, Leanne Benjamin, Roberta Marquez, Valeri Hristov, Bennet Gartside and Steven McRae (in the pas de trois) who seem lost in their own reveries or playing an eternal game of “Romantic tag”, which is suggested by the way the first male (Hristov, befuddled but elegant) touches his ballerina, like winding her with a magic wand – a leitmotif which is also seen in the other sections of Jewels. And as four ballerinas, interlinked with their partners, plunge into simultaneous arabesques penchés we see multiple visions of Giselle captured in a delicate bracelet. A real luxury.

Rubies

The most successful of the three Jewels is, conversely, the one that appeals the least to my personal taste. But that’s not to say I do not enjoy a modern cut Ruby sandwiched between an Emerald and a Diamond. Rubies is supposed to showcase three technically brilliant dancers (2 women and 1 man) but now with Laura McCulloch not particularly tall and not particularly dominating (though much more secure in later performances), I feel as if all the action is left in the hands of Alexandra Ansanelli and Carlos Acosta. But at least those are competent hands. Stravinsky’s “Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra” seems to musically suggest a capricious woman and her rakish man and the way this central couple communicate is almost the antithesis of the regal couple in Diamonds: playful, flirty, naughty, temperamental.  At one point Carlos keeps Alexandra waiting as he goes on a dance tangent. Her exasperated looks seem to say “Oh, enough with the waiting already!”. The piano throws a fit while Alexandra fittingly (and carelessly) throws her leg and her whole body in all compass directions. At times she feigns collapsing in Acosta’s arms as a rebellious child lost in a tantrum, whilst in the audience we rebel against her decision to retire from ballet so early (she is only 28 years old). Throughout their duet, Acosta plays with Alexandra’s body as if it were a musical instrument, while her solo dancing speed dazzles us. I may be team Diamonds all the way but this Ruby I shall dearly miss.

See also: Linda’s review of first & second nights of Jewels

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Balanchine‘s first full-length abstract ballet is a celebration of styles and his tribute to the tradition that had shaped ballet during the 19th and 20th centuries. One can only marvel at his achievement while admiring the complexity of the choreography, the richness of the steps and the inclusion of novelty movement and geometry between the dancers. Jewels is a crowd pleasing ballet that will always touch us in a particular way, even more if it is danced with complete command of both technique and artistry.

The programme notes alert us to the natural associations one may draw between the ballet’s name and “a formal kaleidoscope”. When first approaching Jewels, it might seem that this is the case: the designs, costumes and music are all beautiful in every sense of the word, one can only stare in disbelief when the curtain opens to reveal the dancers in Emeralds. Never having seen it live before, I came to the opening performance with two missions: first to see how would I react to  each different ballet and second to try to understand how Rubies became more popular  on its own than Diamonds or Emeralds.

On the first account, it surprised me to discover that although Balanchine is a master of the abstract, with a firm purpose to make us “see the music”, the possibilities of adding personal layers of interpretation to this ballet are endless. I found myself building a story for every single piece, creating characters out of the dancers’ portrayals (I wished I could query the dancers as to their particular ideas and stories when learning the choreography). I also realised, after a second view, that these “stories” changed with every cast, and depended on how they personally approached their roles, who they were partnering, the chemistry, how they presented themselves, physical proportions, etc. In some ways, an abstract ballet gives more interpretive freedom to the dancers while the audience has an  opportunity to draw their own impressions from the proverbial “put a man and a woman together and you get a story”.

Emeralds

The first night Emeralds brought us Tamara Rojo in the role that Violette Verdy made famous. She was partnered by Valeri Hristov replacing the “irreplaceable” (and sadly injured) Edward Watson, whom we missed deeply, since Tamara did not seem to have the same level of complicity with Valeri as she has with Edward. Tamara made use of her expressive arms and amazing acting ability to show us a young girl in love: smiley, flirty and sometimes shy, evading the looks of her suitor, running between the other Emerald ladies. Valeri was the man in love trying to conquer the object of his affection while Tamara tip-toed and twirled through her variation like a maiden who daydreams of her knight in a meadow full of flowers with a stream nearby, with added touches of butterflies and songbirds for good measure. All innocence and young love. Pure joy. Hristov’s variation was ably performed, though less eloquent in Romantic imagery: up to that point, it was all about Tamara.

Leanne Benjamin in Emeralds. Photo: Johan Persson. Source: Danceviewtimes

Leanne Benjamin in Emeralds. Photo: Johan Persson. Source: Danceviewtimes

That is, until Leanne Benjamin appeared on stage. It is quite hard for anyone to steal Tamara’s thunder, but we feel that Leanne achieved this in the way she wove so much drama into the Emeralds “Walking pas de deux“. Here was a mature dancer on top of her game, giving us darkness after the sun, like an older woman saying to the world – here I am, I am still beautiful, still full of things to give, just look at me! – Piqué turns and grand battements made her vaporous tutu ethereal, and even though the movements were strong there was a sense of underlying sadness. This interpretation came full circle when a moody looking Bennet Gartside (replacing an injured Ivan Putrov) brought into the same pas de deux the feel of a mature married couple, struggling with the realisation that time is passing them by, that they are not what they used to be (suggested by the emphasis on arms and legs as clock hands). Registering every nuance of her interpretation I couldn’t stop wondering why Leanne is not as popular as some of the other Royal Ballet younger ballerinas.

The Emeralds pas de trois was danced by the fantastic trio of Steven McRae, Deirdre Chapman (back from maternity leave) and Laura Morera, in what it looked to me like the “hot young guy” surrounded by two enamoured girls. Their execution was flawless and of course, Steven made ample use of this opportunity to show off his fantastic split jetés and perfect tours en l’air.

The second cast of Emeralds had Roberta Marquez and Mara Galeazzi partnered by each of Valeri Hristov (in the same role as opening night) and David Makhateli. These interpretations were a complete constrast to Tamara and Leanne’s rich narratives, with Roberta a more straightforward Emerald who was just enjoying her dancing (and indeed, her smile was infectious). Personally I did not feel Emeralds was a good fit for Mara, since she didn’t convey the innate romanticism in the music and air. As the two leading men were not outstanding, I took the opportunity to observe here some of the girls who are starting to stand-out from the corps (and I wished the ROH included portraits of the artists and first artists in their programmes). The highlight of this performance was the pas de Trois, in which Helen Crawford and Samantha Raine shone, accompanied by an efficient José Martín.

From left to right: Tamara Rojo, Leanne Benjamin, Steven McRae and Roberta Marquez. Source: ROH ©. Copyright belongs to its respective owners.

From left to right: Tamara Rojo, Leanne Benjamin, Steven McRae and Roberta Marquez. Source: ROH ©. Copyright belongs to its respective owners.

In both performances, the finale was well executed and the members of the corps looked sharp and well-rehearsed, all the way to the final pose where the three men, in grand reverence, stare at the horizon.

Rubies

The Royal Ballet in Rubies. Photo: Johan Persson ©. Source: Voice of Dance.

The Royal Ballet in Rubies. Photo: Johan Persson ©. Source: Voice of Dance.

Next stop was sizzling, fun and jazzy Rubies, or should I rename it the A&A Show after the main duo of “Alexandra Ansanelli and Carlos Acosta“. For Alexandra owned the role. I wondered whether this was due to her long history with NYCB and Balanchine choreography, combined with the fact that she has been outstanding this season or  simply that she is enjoying her very last performances before retirement from dance. She played and flirted with Carlos, swaying effortlessly, charmingly and elegantly through her steps. Carlos kept up the dialogue onstage and answered every single stroke, lest he be outshined by this leading lady. They were like the couple everyone stares at on the dance floor, nothing else seemed to matter for them. Here was an amazing newly discovered chemistry between them, which felt fresher than his  own longstanding (and famous) partnership with Tamara. If only Alexandra and Carlos could have been paired up more often, they might have really complemented each other in various ways.

Moving from pas de deux to solo, Carlos and Alexandra showcased their technical abilities while keeping up with the demanding pace, Carlos in particular relishing the opportunity to prove to the audience that he could soar through the stage at least as dazzlingly as Steven McRae from the previous section (plenty of grand jetés and ballon – daring to pause in the air -). Alexandra kept pushing the limits of the choreography, to the point of being in danger of falling. When a missing step called her bluff she just squealed and shrugged it off, which made the performance even more real and endearing.

Less secure was Laura McCulloch in both Rubies casts, covering both Zenaida Yanowsky and Lauren Cuthbertson as the “Tall Girl”.  She seemed eager to eat the stage but wobbled through a few of her arabesques and although much calmer (yet equally enthusiastic) on second performance, I ended up with the impression that she lacks some of the agility and speed to launch her ruby off the ground (though her extensions were amazing, particularly on the second night) and to keep up with the frantic pace of the corps. While I give Laura full marks for being able to pull a two-nighter on a main role at short notice & to stand her ground in a starry cast, I suspect her inner jewel is not really a ruby.

From left to right: Alexandra Ansanelli, Carlos Acosta, Laura McCulloch and Ricardo Cervera. Source: ROH ©. Copyright belongs to its respective owners.

From left to right: Alexandra Ansanelli, Carlos Acosta, Laura McCulloch and Ricardo Cervera. Source: ROH ©. Copyright belongs to its respective owners.

The second cast of Rubies was led by Yuhui Choe (debuting) and Ricardo Cervera. They brought something different than the previous pair, acing the technical demands whilst looking like teenagers fooling around. The casting of Yuhui  – a dancer with the softest arms, who looks in my opinion more Emeralds or Diamonds than Broadway – exemplifies the importance  of giving dancers the opportunity to explore roles not immediately associated with them, to avoid “typecasting”. Important yes, but not necessarily always a good fit. Ricardo didn’t match Acosta’s performance but showed us again that he can jump like the best of them, and he definitely “popped out” when surrounded by the corps in the finale.

With Rubies over, I finally understood its appeal and own success story. It is such an infectious audience-pleaser, filled with continuous surprises, twists and turns. The choreography is so strikingly different. While Emeralds is a thing of pure beauty, Rubies is the one people cheer for & laugh at. It is box office friendly,  and its upbeat, full of spark atmosphere immediately grabs the occasional ballet goers’ attention and takes them along for a wild ride.

Diamonds

The regal Diamonds, the last ballet of the evening, is full of Imperial Russian grandeur and nods to the classics (the hand in the hair from Raymonda, the balances on attitude from Sleeping Beauty‘s Rose Adagio, the arched back on retiré position from Act III Swan Lake, etc). The opening waltz for the corps de ballet immediately reminded me of Sleeping Beauty and Petipa in the beautiful classical lines displayed everywhere and its almost overwhelming grandeur. Still, this serves just as an aperitif to what follows next, the “grand pas de deux.” Opening night saw the beautiful Alina Cojocaru, continuing her comeback from injury, and Rupert Pennefather (who despite being quite tall has been dancing the lead role with tiny Alina since 2007, when he stood in at the premiere for an injured Federico Bonelli) looking picture perfect as prince and princess (again, think Aurora). This opening performance had quite a special “aura” that could be felt in the auditorium, as if we were all collectively gauging how Alina might have changed post her prolonged absence from the stage. She performed carefully and given the difference in height there were also slight complications and miniminal issues in Rupert’s partnering (as on the aided pirouettes). All this didn’t matter since it was more her artistry that shone through her dancing, her arms expressing every single note of the music, her face full of emotion, but with an underlying melodramatic tone that permeated the pas de deux. In some wonderful balances on attitude you could feel her full commitment to the steps, as if there was no tomorrow and this was the last time she could do this. It was not Aurora on stage, or any other of the Petipa heroines, but a more womanly princess, completely aware of her emotions and transparent to everyone to see. Suffice to say that her performance affected me in such a way that I still need some time to think about it.

Alina Cojocaru and Rupert Pennefather in Diamonds. Photo: Tristram Kenton ©. Source: The Guardian.

Alina Cojocaru and Rupert Pennefather in Diamonds. Photo: Tristram Kenton ©. Source: The Guardian.

Rupert was a handsome prince and his dancing was sharp and precise, showing all the dividends he has accumulated this season as a dancer. His variation was elegant and noble. I thought he complimented Alina’s performance in a subdued way, and it was very sweet of him to thank her at the end, as if it had been his privilege to dance with her. He might not be my favourite partner for Alina, but he is definitely a dancer who is getting better and better.

The second cast was led by sunny Marianela Nuñez and her real life prince Thiago Soares. Given the season Marianela has had, it would be difficult to think she wouldn’t ace this role, and indeed she did. As usual, her technique came across strongly and Thiago was more than an accommodating partner (his variation featured slightly different jumps than Rupert’s, but all cleanly executed). However, I couldn’t help feeling as if I was watching a reprisal of the Wedding festivities of Sleeping Beauty. There was not as much depth as in Alina’s and Rupert’s performance, but this might be just my personal take on it, as underneath it all, this is an abstract ballet.

From left to right: Rupert Pennefather, Alina Cojocaru, Thiago Soares and Marianela Nuñez. Source: ROH ©. Copyright belongs to its respective owners.

From left to right: Rupert Pennefather, Alina Cojocaru, Thiago Soares and Marianela Nuñez. Source: ROH ©. Copyright belongs to its respective owners.

I should also add honorary mentions to the corps in the polonaise (although they offered a much better and coordinated performance on second night) and to Thomas Whitehead, Yohei Sasaki and Yuhui Choe on the first night, and Brian Maloney, Sergei Polunin, Helen Crawford and Samantha Raine (on double duty together with Emeralds), all of whom noticeably good in their soloist roles.

In short, Diamonds stands as a great closing piece, one that evokes and pays tribute to the classics, while also serving as a rich frame to the central couple and in particular the main ballerina. It is the dance equivalent of a decadent dessert, a celebration of dance which is best enjoyed and appreciated alongside first courses of Emeralds and Rubies. In any case, the Royal Ballet did well to acquire the three ballets for its repertoire. It is the ideal vehicle for showcasing the jewel-like ballerinas in its ranks. I am quite sure I will be going back to Covent Garden anytime it is revived.

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Schéhérazade, feat. Ulyana Lopatkina and Farukh Ruzimatov. Source: The ROH ©. Copyright belongs to its respective owners.

Last Sunday I attended the “Tribute to Diaghilev”, a gala in celebration of  100 years of Ballets Russes and of its visionary mastermind, Sergei Diaghilev. The event brought together many stars of the Mariinsky, Paris Opera Ballet, English National Ballet and Royal Ballet, dancing extracts of vintage pieces made or inspired by Ballet Russes choreographers such as Fokine, Nijinska, Massine and Balanchine along with Russian-bred ballets evoking those that Diaghilev would have disseminated to Western audiences at the time (abridged versions of Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, etc.). It is difficult to imagine how the ballet scene would be today without Diaghilev and his determination, through which a new breed of dancers and choreographers flourished  and established some of today’s best Companies, so it is fitting that dancers and audiences pay tribute to his work.

Before I go onto the programme, a brief comment on galas. Noticing the lack of scenery and props, I wonder how hard it is then for the dancers to get into character in such events, especially in more narrative pieces. Without the props the dancing really becomes the focus, which partly explains why Balanchine favoured bare settings in his works. The second thing is that galas are precisely the occasion for star dancers to “show off their chops”, with no fear of being branded too showy. One expects great performances and that’s why Grand Pas de Deux, especially those requiring a sequence of 32 fouettées for the ballerina are standard. Sometimes I think there must be a rule out there stating that no gala should be without one.

With Fokine’s pieces taking centre stage, the opening number was the Schéhérezade pas de deux with Mariinsky’s Ulyana Lopatkina and Igor Zelensky (replacing Farukh Ruzimatov). For those of you not familiar with this ballet, the  story involves Zobeide, her slave lover, her betrayal of jealous King Shahriar who plots to expose his favorite odalisque, leading to the tragic demise of her lover. Zobeide kills herself and the ballet ends with the King raising his arms in despair, realising he’d rather trade his pride for having Zobeide back. The pas de deux between the slave and Zobeide was marvelously danced by Ulyana, stretching her long limbs in ways that are almost impossible to believe, but always keeping classical alignment (attitudes and developpés galore). Igor Zelensky was a formidable partner, and the connection between both dancers was evident from the way their movements mirrored each other. The choreography, which is all about passion and sensuality, might in the wrong hands look as  pure contortionism, but here it was rendered to great effect no doubt due to such amazing (and experienced) dancers.  On a side note, the costumes were so detailed and rich that one can only imagine how the full production would look like.

The next piece was Ashton’s Daphnis and Chloe (video link), included as a nod to Fokine’s older, discarded version using the same Ravel score, and danced by Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Natasha Oughtred (in lieu of Alina Cojocaru, in a last minute cast change) and Federico Bonelli, back from injury and in good shape. Though Ashton’s very distinctive choreography shined, somehow it also clashed with the programme’s strong emphasis on Fokine. The dancing was solid with Natasha showing her mastery of Ashton’s fast paced footwork including some  impressive hops on pointe, but I didn’t get emotionally involved in the performance, which might indicate that either this piece is not adequate for a gala setting or that Alina’s withhdrawal at short notice left these dancers little time to work together.

Federico Bonelli and Jamie Tapper in Daphnis et Chloe. Photo: Dee Conway ©. Source: Danceviewtimes

Petrushka followed, with ENB’s Dmitri Gruzdyev playing the puppet with feelings who falls for a ballerina. But the fragment was so short and the setting so bare there was not enough time to register and those unfamiliar with the story might have been left scratching their heads. Thankfully this didn’t happen with Ashton’s La Chatte, which was fantastically danced by Alexandra Ansanelli (whom we miss already). The Diaghilev connection to this ballet, based on the Aesop fable of cat’s metamorphosis into woman & back into cat (upon encounter with mouse), comes from Balanchine’s own 1927 version for the Ballets Russes. Alexandra’s portrayal, both funny and impecable dancing-wise and the feeling that she seemed to be enjoying herself so much as to make most people in the audience wonder why she is retiring from dance, added to the fact that she actually meow-ed when the mechanical mouse made its climatic appearance at the very end made this piece one of the evening’s highlights.

The second act pas de deux from Giselle, conveniently marked as “arranged by Fokine” to secure its place in the gala, was danced by Paris Opera Ballet’s recently promoted wunderkind Mathias Heymann (a 21 year old principal!) and young soloist Mathilde Froustey. They looked the part as Albrecht and Giselle (she has a beautiful oval shaped face with dark tresses) with all the right lines and très français Romantic air. There were some technical glitches, her promenade in arabesque wobbly everywhere, his tours en l’air (granted those are hard!) sloppy. This disappointed me, for as hard as it is for dancers to pull off these moody pieces in a gala setting, given the crème de la crème of dancing present, one does expect to see something close to flawless. More so in a “bread and butter” piece such as Giselle. They had brilliant technical moments: Mathilde’s jumps (soubresauts & entrechats) reached great heights and soft landings, while Mathias’s diagonal of cabriolés was outstanding (such height!). But with all due allowances, including  an extra for nerves (young dancers having to share the spotlight with such established stars as Lopatkina, Zelensky, etc.), I could not find the emotion in the performance. It fell on me that Giselle is really a role for more experienced dancers, or at least they are the ones I tend to enjoy the most in this ballet.

The low point of the gala came with Tamar, a ballet about a cruel Queen “who lures passers by to her bed and their death”, danced by Mariinsky’s Irma Nioradze and Ilya Kuznetsov. I cannot list all the wrongs with this piece in one post, but for starters the music was recorded (no explanation given), the costumes were awful (hers a sparkly leopard print catsuit), and the choreography, which was presented as Julius Smoriginas version of the ballet, just looked like a mixture of half-steps and nothing else. To the offending list one must also add Irma’s distractingly noisy shoes.

The first act ended with Fokine’s Le Spectre de la Rose, danced by the darling Yevgenia Obraztsova and Dmitri Gudanov. The story is very simple: a debutante who falls asleep after her first ball and dreams about dancing with the rose she has just received, until it escapes through the window. Here some soaring jetés and pirouettes en attitude thrown in by Gudanov, but Yevgenia not having much to do but waltz and smile prettily (it is not difficult to like her!). I am partial to other interpretations of this piece and dislike the male dancer’s pink wig, so I didn’t rate it as highly as other numbers in the gala. For those in the “pointe shoe watch”, here was the only time I thanked the ballet Gods for Gaynors as they were mute compared to Irma’s shoes, even if they didn’t look very nice in Yevgenia’s feet.

Igor Zelensky as Apollo. Photo: Tristram Kenton ©. Source: The Guardian.

After the interval we got Balanchine’s Apollo (his oldest surviving ballet) with NYCB’s Maria Kowroski as Terpsichore and Igor Zelensky (formerly with NYCB) as Apollo. The performance was flawless with Maria commanding the stage and making use of her long lines (so distinctive to see a Balanchine trained dancer against the more conventionally classical crowd) and Zelensky looking very god-like. My favourite part was when Maria was stretched across Igor’s back, arms wide open, it could have happily lasted for a decade.

A replay of last week Les Sylphides sans corps de ballet, came via Tamara Rojo and David Makhateli. Those of us who attended the Royal Ballet’s recent triple bill, had the opportunity to see the waltz played at a more appropriate tempo (Valeriy Ovsyanikov did the honours, with the Orchestra of the ENB). This piece suffers without the surrounding sylphs in perfect poses, but Tamara showed lightness, technical prowess (her balance as the music ends lasted forever) and a had a good rapport with Makhateli. Then Dmitri Gudanov re-appeared to dance an extract of Léonide Massine’s Le Tricorne (a good background article here) which captures its Spanish shades in the score and in colourful designs by that little known artist, Picasso. Gudanov managed to somehow deliver a bit of drama and stage presence against the odds of a very short extract and playback music.

Another (sort of) repeat came with The Firebird, with Mariinsky designs and dancers Irma Nioradze and Ilya Kuznetsov. Despite the solid dancing, I was  severely distracted by Irma’s acting. Geared up to compensate for the fact she wasn’t wearing the usual “Firebird” stage makeup, her facial expressions came across as weird or even worse, (gasp!) comedic. Next, Mara Galeazzi and Bennet Gartside from the Royal Ballet in Bronislava Nijinska’s (aka Nijinsky’s sister) Les Biches which does 1920’s chic with comedic flare in its depiction of rich people enjoying pool parties in the Mediterranean. Mara as the girl in blue, showed comfort in those bends and cooly flirted with Bennet’s character. It was quite enjoyable and a good appetizer for the next sizzler: Marianela Nuñez and Thiago Soares in the mother of all classics, Swan Lake. How is it that the evening’s hottest number was not an original Ballets Russes piece, you ask? Well, Swan Lake is a proven commodity. Even Diaghilev knew it. It is a masterpiece and that is why it still sells tickets and attracts audiences (for the record I am not advocating ballet Companies should do runs of 20+ Swan Lakes with not enough dancers to give it justice every night) while some of tonight’s pieces have fallen out of favour since they just don’t measure up to “the classics” or don’t stand the test of time.  What makes a classic? Maybe one should have a good look at Swan Lake, its long enduring appeal and see what lessons future generations of choreographers can learn from it.

Marianela Nuñez and Thiago Soares in The Royal Ballet's Swan Lake. Photo: Dee Conway ©. Source: BFI.

Back to Marianela, who was just incredible. She made Odille her own, poor Siegfried had no chance. It is amazing to witness how Marianela’s artistry has grown and how fresh she looked kicking those fouettées (singles interlaced with doubles and triples). Thiago’s Siegfried could only watch in awe and let himself loose into those treacherous arms. The house broke in thunderous applause and it was one of the loudest ovations I’ve heard recently (only Lopatkina’s below was equally loud) and Thiago graciously let Marianela take centre stage since she was the showstopper here.

Following this piece was going to be hard, but fortunately the gentle Le Carnaval brought some welcome contrast to calm our hearts and minds. Yevgenia Obraztsova returned from Spectre in a similar full-skirted costume portraying a well-matched Columbine to Andrei Batalov’s Harlequin. But the last real highlight and evening closer was the über famous Dying Swan. This quintessential gala piece can easily sway from over-the-top, unnecessary drama to plain corny and cliché. Not with Lopatkina. She was all fragility, beauty, sadness, elegance. The vision of what a melancholy swan should be. Her arms moved softly and her torso delicately bent over her waist really evoked the movements of a bird. The way in which the stage looked blue-ish and the spotlight barely fell over Ulyana, made the performance even more dreamlike. Judging from the crowd response she got, you would be hard-pressed to find anyone in the house not moved by her dancing.

Ulyana Lopatkina in the Dying Swan. Source: The Mariinsky Theatre via ExploreDance.com. Copyright belongs to its respective owners.

To sum it all up, the evening was a pleasurable experience and we were treated to some great performances and exposed to rarer pieces. In any case, it was a good reminder of how much classical dance owes to Diaghilev and his Ballets Russes.

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