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Posts Tagged ‘Natasha Oughtred’

It is interesting to discover how choreographers find inspiration for a new piece and how they bring their ideas alive through dance. When David Bintley first announced he would do a ballet inspired by a physics equation, E=mc2, many were puzzled. How could Bintley turn an abstract mathematical statement into a ballet?

Using David Bodanis‘s biographical account of the eponymous equation as source material, Bintley started from its components (or ancestors) energy E, mass m, speed of light c and squared 2, to create his ballet’s three main movements, plus an interlude, The Manhattan Project. He then added choreographic nods to the related discoveries of scientists such as Michael Faraday, Antoine Lavoisier, Émilie du Châtelet, among others and, most importantly, to Albert Einstein.

While there is no need to know about physics or Relativity to appreciate the piece, there is more to Bintley’s imaginative dancing than meets the eye and as I have the  advantage of a high energy physics background, all those scientific references certainly added to my enjoyment:

Elisha Willis and Joseph Caley in BRB's E=mc2 Photo: Bill Cooper Source: BRB ©

Elisha Willis and Joseph Caley in BRB's E=mc2 (Energy) Photo: Bill Cooper Source: BRB ©

In Energy, for instance, Bintley plays with Faraday’s idea of curling lines generated from a magnet’s interaction with electric currents so dancers curl their arms and hands throughout. An almost bare stage, a central projected strip of clouds, the piece starts with a bang and the corps de ballet come in and out, filling all the space, making swirling patterns to the pitching music. His choreographic framework is clearly Faraday’s engine: using the current of a power source near a dangling wire to charge a magnet Faraday visualised circular lines coming from it, which could “sweep” the wire and induce it to rotate magnetically as does the screw in the video below:

The swirling corps de ballet is to Bintley’s choreography what the circular magnetic lines are to Faraday, the main couple – Joseph Caley and Elisha Willis – acting as the dangling wire as they rotate around the ensemble of dancers and around each other in beautiful turns and pirouettes, with their burst of energy also echoing the electric currents printed in the costumes designed by Kate Ford.

Strikingly different Mass, with its shades of brown and a moody, melancholic violin score, revolves around three groups, each with two men and a woman, plus a central pas de deux for Gaylene Cummerfield and Matthew Lawrence. The women are lifted and moved around slowly, indicating heaviness, the influence of gravity and mass over every physical object. The focus on bodies and the various ways in which they can be used to create geometry (for instance the iconic image of the three lifted dancers in a triangle) as well as the various balances taken by the dancers across the stage all point to Lavoisier’s studies on mass conservation and his conclusions on the weight of substances before and after a chemical reaction. Bintley also reminds us of the connection between mass and energy when later on these dancers enter forming a compact mass, moving as a whole with their hands curling in the same way as the previous group.

in Mass. Samara Downs in The Manhattan Project. Photos: Bill Cooper. Source: BRB ©

Celine Gittens and Tom Rogers in Mass and Samara Downs in The Manhattan Project. Photos: Bill Cooper. Source: BRB ©

The interlude brings a red square of light in the background, a dancing white geisha and thunderous sound which develops into an explosion. This may be a short section but references to the atomic bombs and the destruction of  Hiroshima and Nagasaki could not be more direct. Though visually impacting I thought that Bintley could have done without this section, not least because it logically should have come after Celeritas2, although logic in this case would have made for a grim finale and I much prefer the dazzler we got.

A background wall of lights directed to the audience, with the dancers playfully running and doing grand jetés from the sides lead us to closing piece Celeritas2 (latin for swiftness) which uses notions of speed and wave-particle duality exhibited by light. Bintley reminds us that light waves are nothing but electricity and magnetism forever chasing each other in space, just like first soloist Alexander Campbell and principal Carol-Anne Millar when they “play catch” and switch between front and back, with oscillating movements.

Bintley reserves his most visually stunning trick for a climatic end which uses the ensemble of the corps. Looking at light in terms of particles he builds rows of dancers in non-stop soft soubresauts. The dancers propagate their light in waves from the front row all the way to the last, each individually a photon, a “light” particle and  collectively a “wave” of dance going all the way to the back of the stage. The ensemble suddenly stops and only then does the main couple break to the sides, in mind-blowing chaîné turns. He could not have devised a more crowd-pleasing, applause-generating number closer.

Artists of Birmingham Royal Ballet in Celeritas². Photo: Roy Smiljanic Source: BRB ©

Artists of Birmingham Royal Ballet in 'Celeritas²'. Photo: Roy Smiljanic Source: BRB ©

Overall E=mc2 does an excellent job of translating a deep and abstract mathematical concept, the result of the work of an outstanding group of thinkers, into dance. The meaning of each movement was made clear through the choreography, by Peter Mumford’s remarkable use of lighting and via the enjoyable score from Australian composer Matthew Hindson. While the piece looks modern and fresh the steps are pure classical ballet which will allow it to live in the repertoire for many years to come.

Bintley’s new piece was bookended by the work of two Australian choreographers, Stanton Welch and Garry Stewart. Welch’s Powder, set to Mozart’s luscious Clarinet Concerto in A minor, had cheeky muses playing around with mere mortals. Whilst Mozart is not the easiest composer to dance to there are many bright points,  such as the sequences for male dancers which evoked four greek marble statues coming to life through synchronised jumps and balances (special mentions to Yasuo Atsuji and Joseph Caley) – and in the elegant pas de deux between Robert Parker and Natasha Oughtred.

Natasha Oughtred with Kosuke Yamamoto, Steven Montieth, Joseph Caley and Yasuo Atsuji Photo: Bill Cooper Source: BRB ©

Natasha Oughtred with Kosuke Yamamoto, Steven Montieth, Joseph Caley and Yasuo Atsuji in BRB's Powder. Photo: Bill Cooper Source: BRB ©

It is impossible to look at the shape (dancers extending through rows of linear lights) and sound (strong/electronic beat) of Stewart’s The Centre and its Opposite and not think of Forsythe‘s In the Middle Somewhat Elevated. But while the choreography is not very original it is certainly diverse in the interchange between modern extreme extensions and standard classical ballet combinations: deep grand pliés with arms on fifth, adagio dancing  (developpés going into a attitude en promenade and balances on arabesque) and a sequence of petit allegro steps (jeté, jeté, glissade, changements). I find Stewart’s use of a large group of dancers well judged since it allows many younger artists to appear alongside more established principals, with some fantastic dancing from young promises Dusty Button (a crazy balance that went for ages), Aonghus Hoole and Christopher Rodgers-Wilson, as well as the elegant Robert Parker, who made the most of his beautiful classical line in a different, surprising context.

Dusty Button and Aaron Robison in BRB's The Centre and its Opposite Photo: Bill Cooper Source: BRB ©

Dusty Button and Aaron Robison in BRB's The Centre and its Opposite Photo: Bill Cooper Source: BRB ©

This was a well-thought triple bill, which showed the diversity of the company and a new work which is sure to become a staple. It also served as a perfect showcase not only for the company’s stars but also for their corps members. With all the pieces making the most of BRB’s ensemble, we have proof that in ballet as in nature, one really needs to gather mass to generate huge amounts of energy!

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As the season kicks off  Birmingham Royal Ballet (BRB), one of the UK’s top three ballet companies, celebrates its 20th anniversary as a Birmingham resident. Over the years it has evolved from being the Royal Ballet‘s “touring arm” into shaping its own style: a mix of core repertoire alongside new original full-length narrative ballets, showing a degree of experimentation and risk taking uncommon to big ballet companies. Here we look at the past and present of this unique company:

History

As the name indicates, the Birmingham Royal Ballet is historically linked to the Royal Ballet. They both originated in 1926 when Ninette de Valois founded the Academy of Choreographic Art, her first step towards creating a ballet company with a supporting school. Through Lilian Baylis and her theatres, The Sadler’s Wells and the Old Vic, de Valois found a way to give her company a base and by 1931 she had established the Vic-Wells Ballet and Vic-Wells Ballet School at the Sadler’s Wells Theatre.

Moira Shearer in Sadlers Wells production of Cinderella Photo: Gjon Mili © Source: LIFE

Moira Shearer in Sadler's Wells production of Cinderella Photo: Gjon Mili © Source: LIFE

In 1939 both company and school lost the “Vic” tags to better align with their base at Sadler’s Wells, but the subsequent destruction of Sadler’s Theatre during the war dislodged the company and forced it to become a touring troupe known as the Sadler’s Wells Ballet. The end of the war saw the company’s return to the refurbished theatre until its split into two in 1946: the main company and school moving to a new home at the Royal Opera House (eventually becoming the Royal Ballet) and a smaller sister company – the Sadler’s Wells Theatre Ballet –  created to handle touring performances under the supervision of artistic director John Field.

This sister company would later become the Birmingham Royal Ballet but at this point it continued to change and accrue different names. From 1955 to 1977, having left its base at the Sadler’s Wells Theatre to perform in theatres all around the country, it was known as the Royal Ballet Touring Company. A Royal Charter had been granted to recognize the company’s independence and status but it still functioned as a touring “branch” of the Royal Ballet. By 1970 the company had effectively regained its base at Sadler’s Wells so in 1977, with the arrival of Sir Peter Wright as artistic director, it was renamed Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet.

The Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet finally became the Birmingham Royal Ballet when it relocated to Birmingham in 1990, following an invitation by the Birmingham Hippodrome Theatre and the Birmingham City Council. Peter Wright continued as their Artistic Director until 1995. He was succeeded by choreographer David Bintley, who put his focus into creating an independent company which could be dissociated from the Royal Ballet and in 1997 the BRB finally became independent from the Royal Opera House and the Royal Ballet. Despite this separation, the company still shares a common repertoire with the latter and many of its dancers have emerged from the Royal Ballet School, although the BRB now has its own associated dance academy in the Elmhurst School of Dance.

In addition to performing at home, the BRB regularly visits some of the most important stages around the UK such as the London Coliseum, Sadler’s Wells Theatre, Symphony Hall, The Lowry, etc. It also continues to increase its international presence after successful tours around the US, Hong Kong and South Africa.

Nao Sakuma as Aurora and Chi Cao as Prince Florimund in BRBs The Sleeping Beauty Photo:Bill Cooper / BRB © Source: BRB Website

Nao Sakuma as Aurora and Chi Cao as Prince Florimund in BRB's The Sleeping Beauty Photo:Bill Cooper / BRB © Source: BRB Website

Style and Repertoire

Given their shared origins the BRB style has common elements with the Royal Ballet’s: in their repertoire, with plenty of narrative ballets, and in dancers who are able to emphasize drama and theatricality when performing those. AD David Bintley has furthered the company’s range by continuously creating or commissioning new pieces, with particular focus on the difficult genre of narrative ballet. He has created ten full-length story based ballets (with half of them having been created for BRB and most of them still in repertoire), of which the most successful have captivated audiences and continue to attract  new ones. In contrast, the Royal Ballet’s investment in full-length original commissions has been slimmer, the last one having been Twyla Tharp‘s 1995 A Worldly Wise and the next one, Christopher Wheeldon’s Alice in Wonderland, currently announced and planned for the 2011 season.

Ambra Vallo and Chi Cao in Bintleys Beauty and the Beast. Photo: Bill Cooper / BRB © Source: BRB Website

Ambra Vallo and Chi Cao in Bintley's Beauty and the Beast. Photo: Bill Cooper / BRB © Source: BRB Website

In an ever more globalized ballet world, BRB seems to be  creating its own history, developing its own character. It has shown to be a daring company which is capable of attracting regular audiences with original works. Instead of bringing predictable classics (e.g. Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty, etc.) on  tours around the country, they aim to keep a balance with many works by the great 20th century choreographers, such as Ashton, Balanchine, Cranko, de Valois, MacMillan, Robbins and Tudor. With such a pick’n’mix, it is no wonder  their fanbase keeps growing.

The Dancers

Many well known Royal Ballet names began their careers with the BRB: from Nadia Nerina and Lynn Seymour to Darcey Bussell, Miyako Yoshida and Leanne Benjamin.

Through its association with the Elmhulst School of Dance, BRB aims to develop its own talent to feed into the company’s ranks, but plenty of dancers come from other vocational schools such as the Royal Ballet School or internationally, as is the case with Principal dancers Nao Sakuma (Japan), Chi Cao (China), Elisha Willis (Australia), César Morales (Chile) and Ambra Vallo (Italy). Given its continuous flux of new ballets, the company attracts many dancers interested in having roles created on them.

Aaron Robison and Christopher Larsen as Winds and Artists as Snowflakes Photo: Roy Smiljanic / BRB © Source: BRB Webpage

Aaron Robison and Christopher Larsen as Winds and Artists as Snowflakes in The Nutcracker. Photo: Roy Smiljanic / BRB © Source: BRB Webpage

Videos

Birmingham Royal Ballet has a solid online presence, with plenty of feature and reheasal videos on their website. Here are links to some examples:

  • David Bintley’s Beauty and the Beast with Nao Sakuma as Belle [link]
  • Robert Parker and Elisha Willis in David Bintley’s Cyrano [link]
  • Ashton’s The Two Pigeons Rehearsal with Nao Sakuma and Robert Parker [link]
  • Nao Sakuma rehearses Bintley’s Sylvia [link]
  • Alexander Campbell and Natasha Oughtred rehearse the Nutcracker pas de deux [link]
  • Natasha Oughtred and Joseph Caley rehearse Ashton’s The Dream, under the careful eye of former Royal Ballet Stars,  Anthony Dowell and Antoinette Sibley [link]

Sources and Further Information

  1. Wikipedia Entry for Birmingham Royal Ballet [link]
  2. Step-by-step guide to dance: Birmingham Royal Ballet. By Sanjoy Roy, The Guardian, April 2009 [link]
  3. David Bintley and the BRB: A Tradition of Niceness by Patricia Boccadoro. Culturekiosque, April 2000 [link]
  4. Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Website [link]
  5. Elmhurst and Birmingham Royal Ballet [link]

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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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