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Posts Tagged ‘David Makhateli’

A while ago we wrote about the joys of seeing different casts in the same ballet.  While classics such as The Sleeping Beauty do not leave much room for highly individual interpretations of the central roles they still provide an interesting study of technical and artistic abilities of different ballerinas. In that spirit we took advantage of a mammoth run (8 principal casts & countless performances between October & January this season) to watch 5 different Auroras and Prince Florimunds in the Royal Ballet’s exquisite production.

Alina Cojocaru as Princess Aurora, Elizabeth McGorian as the Queen and Christopher Saunders as King Florestan in The Royal Ballet's The Sleeping Beauty. Photo: Bill Cooper / ROH ©

Rather than bore our readers with details of each of these equally stunning performances (although we did write about “guest of honour” Obraztsova back in Nov) we thought we’d do something different. Last season we drew inspiration from PJ Harvey’s romantic indie rock to write a Giselle & Albrecht roundup; we now look at the dancers’ styles and align them with some of our favorite fashion designers. Thus, in order of performance:

Alina Cojocaru + Johan Kobborg = Vintage Balenciaga

Forget Nicholas Ghesquière’s sacrilegious reinterpretation of this emblematic fashion house. We’re thinking Alina & Johan’s Sleeping Beauty has the same grandeur as Cristóbal Balenciaga’s original designs of the 50’s: superbly cut dance, rich in accents, clear in steps. Alina’s Rose Adagio is a thrilling display of how artistic maturity can make the impossible seem easy. One marvels at how she – whilst balancing on pointe – lowers her arms so slowly to take each suitor’s hand; or at the way she alternates her port de bras while zipping through piqué turns. It all looks as easy and effortless as Balenciaga’s illustrious cape. And this most elegant of Auroras has the lucky draw of Kobborg’s perfectly tailored prince, the most attentive of partners.

Yevgenia Obraztsova + David Makhateli = John Galliano for Dior

Like Dior’s maverick designer Obraztsova and Makhateli showed an incurably Romantic streak in their rendition of Sleeping Beauty. Softly touching the Prince in the Act II vision scene as if to tease him (the only Aurora to do this), Obraztsova creates a dreamy, young love mood. This is a pairing which was never too flashy or too daring, opting instead for polished dancing combined with Romantic touches like Dior’s perfectly cut, well structured taffeta gowns. Further reading here.

Roberta Marquez + Steven McRae = Marc Jacobs

This was a fun performance to watch. Young, bold, colorful just like the US fashion designer who gives traditional fashion cut a modern twist. We particularly loved the way this pair told the story: Marquez’s totally likeable, coquettish & sure-footed Aurora gradually melting the heart of McRae’s spoiled Prince. His passionate temper spoke volumes in the most exciting Act III variation we have seen over the last two seasons of Beauty.

Marianela Nuñez + Thiago Soares = Versace

In the same way Versace is all about female empowerment, plunging necklines, sparkling fabrics and vertiginous cuts, so is Nuñez’s Beauty. She is radiant: her dancing razor-sharp, her Act II variation lush and sinuous. The wedding in Act III is a grandiose event where a fully grown, very womanly Aurora confidently takes centre stage. Soares was her fairytale Prince, handsome in posture and completely spellbound by this princess-goddess.

Tamara Rojo + Rupert Pennefather = Prada

This was a très chic Sleeping Beauty. Rojo & Pennefather’s polished reading for Aurora & Florimund seems cut in the same symmetrical minimalism – not a pleat in excess or out of place – as garments from this very stylish Italian fashion house. Any Auroras out there with a penchant for ultra-extended développés à la seconde (more on the evolution of this ballet step here) should watch Rojo’s demonstration of how “less is more” in classical ballet. Her balances are now the stuff of legends and her pure, classical style, so admired by Mr. Clement Crisp, is well matched by Pennefather’s danseur noble Florimund. His Ashtonian solo during the vision scene is an eloquent counterpoint to Aurora’s own Rose Adagio. While this is not the pair for those who need their romance with extra layers of pink, you could not wish for a more regal and musical Act III wedding pas de deux where Rojo’s trademark travelling fouettées in the coda are the bonus.

Clockwise from left: Vintage Balenciaga, Dior by Galliano, Versace, Prada, Marc Jacobs (img sources: V&A, Style.com, Stylehive, Coutorture)



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Daniil Simkin

Daniil Simkin. Photo: Enrico Nawrath / ABT ©

If you follow dance on the internet chances are you will have heard of Daniil Simkin.  He is the whiz kid (not just dance-wise but also tech-wise) who arrived last year from Vienna State Opera to stir some fresh buzz into American Ballet Theatre’s soloist ranks. His virtuoso dancing and various gala appearances, including the prestigious World Ballet Festival in Japan, have drawn a solid fanbase from every corner of the globe and Daniil draws on multi-platform social media and Web 2.0 to stay in touch and connect with all these fans.

We caught up with Daniil ahead of ABT’s trip to China later this week. He was kind enough to answer our questions about his ABT repertoire, his social media projects and to share his plans for the upcoming gala evening “INTENSIO” in Athens this December.

You are now in your second season with ABT. Can you tell us how it’s going? Any new roles/debuts on the horizon? Which roles do you expect to dance in the upcoming tour to China?

DS: So far my second season has been great. I will be touching a lot of new ground and will be expanding my horizons during the MET’s spring season, dancing in Twyla Tharp’s Brahms Hayden Variations, the great Jerome Robbins ballet Fancy Free, in Sir Frederick Ashton’s The Dream (as Puck), probably in Paul Taylor’s Company B, in addition to dancing my current roles in our classical repertoire. I have also been understudying a few Principal roles in the classics since I have performed some of them with other companies, but I have no scheduled performances in those yet.

During ABT’s tour in China I will be performing ‘Everything doesn’t happen at Once‘ by Benjamin Millepied and ‘One in Three‘ by Aszure Barton, both created for ABT and premiered during its Avery Fisher Hall season this Fall. Both pieces are extremely different, but very enjoyable to perform. I am very much looking forward to the tour, especially because it will be my first visit to China.

Simkin Millepied

Daniil Simkin in Benjamin Millepied’s Everything Doesn’t Happen at Once. Photo: Gene Schiavone / ABT ©

Speaking of the Far East, can you briefly share your experiences at the World Ballet Festival in Japan this past summer?

DS: The World Ballet Festival was an unbelievable experience. Just the fact that I was sharing the stage with people like Sylvie Guillem, Aurelie Dupont, Manuel Legris, Alina Cojocaru, Johan Kobborg, Marianela Nuñez, Svetlana Zakharova, Leonid Sarafanov, Tamara Rojo… It gives me goosebumps. One of the most memorable moments was probably receiving corrections & pointers from Sylvie Guillem. Luckily my first show, a full-length Don Quixote, happened at the very beginning of the festival. Not everybody was there yet so I was able to concentrate on my show without thinking too much on who might be watching in the audience!

You are one of few classical dancers currently using social media to connect with your audience. How did you get into it and what are you trying to achieve in all these different platforms (Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, etc.)?

DS: I have always been interested in computers and any technology-related gadgets. Some boys are drawn towards cars and motorsports, whereas as a kid I was drawn to computers, science and gadgets. I spent more time on my father’s first computers than he ever did. Then came the Internet and its ever-increasing presence in our lives. Luckily I was born in an age when everything was just starting. I was designing personal websites by myself in my spare time and once codecs for videos became more efficient I put in there videos from my competitions as downloadable clips.

Then one day I saw one of my clips in somebody’s MySpace page and found out somebody else had uploaded two of my clips and was selling a DVD of it on YouTube without my permission. I was shocked. Because of that I decided to put my own videos onto YouTube, otherwise others would. I also started to use MySpace after my competition in Jackson (2006) since it was the perfect way to keep in touch with a lot of the US dancers I had met there.

From there it was not a long shot to Facebook and Twitter. I was the second professional dancer to use Twitter, after San Francisco Ballet Principal and good friend Maria Kochetkova. I had fun updating my status and therefore kept doing it, until twittering was the next popular thing for pretty much every and anyone. Nowadays all of my platforms are interconnected, which means that my profile and my work can be discovered through different channels. If somebody gets to know a little bit about what I do from watching my YouTube videos, this person can then have a full picture through my Facebook page, Twitter and my personal website, which is currently in the process of being upgraded to a new, fully integrated, Web 2.0 version.

Simkin Azure

Daniil Simkin in Aszure Barton’s One of Three. Photo: Photo: Gene Schiavone / ABT ©

With all of this, my aim is to demystify our work as ‘professional dancers’. Our profession is surrounded by clichés and prejudices from misinformed people. I am trying to show that we dancers may be a little different from everybody else, but in essence we are human beings with routines, likes and dislikes, social lives and passions like everyone else. In short, we are not so different or more special than the office worker sitting in a cubicle, we just have different workspaces.

People in dance talk about the need to promote ballet more widely and yet, few actually do it. Why do you think there are so few dancers/choreographers in social media channels and have you encouraged any of your colleagues to use them?

DS: To quote a twitterer “I must do something” always solves more problems than “Something must be done” (Author Unknown). In the end, we as the dance world ARE the ones who have to change, not our surroundings, the media, etc. In my opinion classical dance is not more popular because in the dance world we tend to be more conservative than innovative. We have to change our mentality and prejudices towards copyright, media, replace them with openness and transparence. Only when the majority understands that this is the key to the future, will we succeed. In my opinion protectionism in these days of Internet/Web 2.0 can be destructive. That’s my two cents.

I have been encouraging some of my colleagues to participate in the Web 2.0 movement, but unlike most of the other professional fields, ballet is very physical and is very little connected to technology in its everyday routine. Therefore dancers are not as open to embracing the possibilities of technology as they could be.

What do you think major ballet companies should be doing to draw new audiences and to keep engaging them?

DS: The same things I mentioned before. Project more openness and a certain fearlessness in their PR. Fear is the biggest enemy of innovation and it prevents them from progressing, from opening the art form towards new audiences.

It is clear to me that the artistic mission of ballet companies should be to maintain a healthy balance between proven classics and innovative work with new ballet choreographers. Basically it is guarding a basis while nurturing experimental directions, but in reality, only big scale companies have the luxury to do both these things. The smaller the company, the harder it will be – budget and quality wise – to maintain a high level of both. Which doesn’t mean it is not a goal to strive for or one that’s unreachable.

Can you tell us more about the gala you are organizing in Athens this December? Why this particular location and who will be guesting?

DS: After performing in the ‘Svetlana Zakharova & Friends’ gala in Athens last year I was approached and asked to organize a similar event. The Gala evening is called ‘INTENSIO – An International Ballet Gala Presented by Daniil Simkin’. ‘INTENSIO’ is a play with the words ‘intense’ and ‘intention’. It describes the evening quite well in that it is not going to be just a clean dance evening, we are trying to merge different media into a ‘mashup’ for an entertaining evening. My father is in charge of the stage design and video projections specifically designed to support the dance on stage, as some pieces will be integrated with video. It is an exciting project for me and a new approach towards the usual ‘gala’ evening you see so often.

So far the following dancers will be performing (+ another couple to be announced)

Daniil Simkin Peasant Pdd

Daniil Simkin in ABT's Giselle. Photo: Rosalie O’Connor / ABT ©

How do you see your career evolving 5 years from now, what would you like to have achieved & which roles do you aspire to dance?

DS: I tend not to look too much into the future. Life experience showed me that it is healthier and better for me to enjoy the things I have now and share the beauty of life right here, right now. Having said that, dancing the Principal classical repertoire is one of my priorities in the near future and I would also love to go back to school, at least part-time or to learn remotely. Right now I am too busy and I don’t have enough time, but hopefully in the future I will be able to do that.

What’s in your ballet bag?

DS: Different things for different occasions… If I am running from studio to studio rehearsing, then it would be:

  • Water with added Magnesium
  • Different kinds of warm ups to keep as flexible and as warm as possible (normally consist of 4 or more items+ warm up boots or warm up socks)
  • Headband to keep my hair in place (which tends to be long enough to bug me)
  • Sansha Pro 1C skin colored ballet slippers
  • Toe spacers for my big toes + medical tape to stick them
  • iPhone + a2dp Bluetooth Nokia wireless headphones
  • 2 different stretching bands: One from Chacott to stretch my split and extensions and one Thera-Band to warm up my feet

Last but not least, COOKIES to keep my bloodsugar and mood up and to give me an always needed sugar-fix!

More about Daniil:

  1. The New York Times on Daniil in ABT’s Le Corsaire [link]
  2. W Magazine on Daniil’s relationship with the Internet [link]
  3. Daniil’s Official Website [link]
  4. Daniil on Twitter [link]
  5. His Facebook page [link]
  6. His YouTube channel [link]
  7. Intensio Gala Information from Elliniki Theamaton (venue) [link]

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When the Mariinsky brought their Soviet Beauty to London this summer I left wishing I could have seen their lovely Aurora Evgenia Obraztsova in a more agreeable production. I think the Lilac Fairy must have heard my wishes, for they came true last Saturday: Evgenia was back in London guesting in The Royal Ballet’s Sleeping Beauty. Having originally planned to see only 2 performances of the ballet this time, both featuring these Bag Ladies’ favourite Aurora Alina Cojocaru, I suddenly had to make room for more. After all, when a Mariinsky ballerina (and another notable Princess Aurora) descends upon your local company you drop all prior engagements and spend your emergency ballet cash on whatever seats are left. And there weren’t many.

The Sleeping Beauty, The Royal Ballet, 2009

Emma Maguire as Red Riding Hood and David Pickering as The Wolf in The Sleeping Beauty Act 3. Photo: Johan Persson / ROH ©

Evgenia, who had just made an important debut a few days before as the Tsar Maiden in Ratmansky’s version of The Little Humpacked Horse, is an utterly charming Aurora and the Royal Ballet’s very delicate production of this classic fits her like a glove. She did not seem to have any issues with the differences in  the choreography, nor with the slower conducting tempo which actually did her a great service during the Rose Adagio‘s trickier passages.

Obraztsova makes her Act 1 entrance reminding us that none of the qualities bestowed on the 16-year old Princess by the fairy godmothers are wasted on her. During Aurora’s variation she even nods to the often overlooked Fairy of the Song Bird with an exquisite flutter of her hands, showing how important it is to truly have the gift of musicality when you dance a role like this. In the Rose Adagio she responds to her suitors with equal doses of shyness and coquettishness and even though she dared not look at them during the first series of balances, she risked one or two flirty glances as soon as she  had settled into the final promenades. This might be unconsciously done but it fits the character of a teenager still not used to all that male attention so well.

She also had a good rapport with her prince David Makhateli. David,  a dancer who possesses a vintage aura of Romanticism, is perfect for the role of Prince Florimund. He is elegant and very fine in the adagio parts and in his display of classical line. While their first pas de deux in the vision scene conveyed mutual longing, in the wedding pas de deux we have a real sense of two souls united from the way they slowly mirror each other’s steps and then converge into one. A detail I admire about David’s Florimund is that he does the “no hands fish dive” finale looking lovingly at his Aurora whereas most Princes tend to gaze at the audience. But how could he not, with such an exquisite dancer as Evgenia in his hands?

The Sleeping Beauty, The Royal Ballet, 2009

Sergei Polunin as Florestan in The Royal Ballet’s The Sleeping Beauty Act 3. Photo: Johan Persson / ROH ©

This being a matinée it was normal to expect certain roles cast at a more junior level.  It was a pleasure to see the elegant Xander Parish as the Lilac cavalier and corps member Akane Takada so confident in soloist roles. She gave a good injection of fluidity to the tricky Fairy of the Enchanted Garden variation and  continued to shine later alongside the always delightful Yuhui Choe in the Florestan Pas de Trois. Kristen McNally was a very wicked Carabosse. But one still laments the fact that, save for Marianela Nuñez, the company seems short of Principal dancers who can tackle the fiendish role of the Lilac Fairy. As lovely as Laura McCulloch is in manner and in mime, the Lilac’s prologue variation, with its Italian fouettés and turns that demand Swiss-watch precision, is too big a challenge to be cast at anything other than Principal level, even in a matinée performance.

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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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