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A staple in the repertoire of all major ballet companies, Giselle has always been an audience favourite. Romantic ballet fans will have a sentimental connection with this quintessential story dealing with man’s encounter with supernatural characters. They cherish not only its iconic solos, the challenges they pose to the the central ballerina and her partner  but also the dark beauty and awe of its ensemble pieces, one of the ultimate tests for a company’s corps de ballet.

Elena Glurdjidze and Artists of English National Ballet in Giselle. Photo: Daria Klimentová / ENB ©

Mary Skeaping, a scholar of Romantic ballets, created for the English National Ballet a very particular production of Giselle. It attempts to stray as little as possible from its original conception in 19th century France. Missing pieces of the choreography have been restored, the second act featuring an additional scene where a group of gamekeepers is surrounded by the ghostly Wilis, as well as the complete fugue in which the Wilis circle Giselle and Albrecht, arms raised in threat.

Skeaping’s production also employs mime more frequently (she learned the original mime directly from Tamara Karsavina) and alters certain sequences to emphasise key aspects of the story. Thus, the peasant pas de deux, with one variation for each peasant and Giselle’s solo woven in, becomes a sort of divertissement for the nobility. Since the villagers are gathered to celebrate the vine harvest, the group dances center around the event, with a new pas de deux and additional solos for Giselle and Loys/Albrecht. For those familiar with Giselle, a first glimpse at Skeaping’s version might come as a mild shock; differences between hers and other more conventional productions popping out here and there. Whether these changes actually enhance the storytelling is a question I can only answer after additional viewings.

Any successful production of Giselle will also depend on a strong leading ballerina and, in this respect, Elena Glurdjidze hits the spot. She is a sweet Giselle with a beautiful expressive upper body, a powerful jump and the sound technique to deliver Spessivtseva‘s famous diagonal without a glitch. In the mad scene Glurdjidze’s Giselle is haunting and heart-wrenching, as a Wili she stays rooted in the Romantic style (think rounded arms, ethereal steps, tilted torsos). Arionel Vargas, her Albrecht, is a dancer of elegant lines but ultimately not entirely convincing as the repentant Count, never fully projecting transcendence through Giselle’s love.

Elena Glurdjidze as Giselle and Arionel Vargas as Albrecht in English National Ballet's Giselle. Photo: Daria Klimentová / ENB ©

In addition to Glurdjidze, the evening’s highlight was the corps de ballet. English National Ballet boasts a strong and disciplined set of dancers; few times have I seen such stunning Wili scenes, sweeping lines of Wilis in shades of white and green moved across the stage in menacing waves, creating images of dark beauty. They were led by Chantel Roulston, solid in technique but somewhat lacking in the icy, commanding manners of Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis.

The evening’s programme began with Men Y Men, a short “all male” ballet set to Rachmaninoff. Choreographed by ENB’s Artistic Director Wayne Eagling, the piece showcases the male contingent’s technical gifts, giving them extra stage time in an evening dominated by the women. Despite some interesting sections of choreography in canon (i.e. in succession, with the next dancer overlapping the movement of the previous dancer) and flashy solos to dazzle the audience, I thought the piece lacked substance and that the dark tights worn by the dancers against a dark setting led to a strange effect of torsos floating on air. It did not leave a lasting impression, unlike Giselle and its eternal supernatural powers.

Elena Glurdjidze as Giselle and Arionel Vargas as Albrecht in English National Ballet's Giselle. Photo: Daria Klimentová / ENB ©

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Christmas season is definitely upon London, with decorative lights on the streets, people rushing to buy presents, chilly mornings and, ballet-wise, the possibility of finishing off the day with The Royal Ballet’s Nutcracker now in its 25th season.

Sir Peter Wright’s staging sticks to the original Hoffmann story where Drosselmeyer’s nephew Hans-Peter has been cursed and turned into a Nutcracker doll by the revengeful Mouse King. The spell can only be broken if he defeats the royal rodent while also capturing a young girl’s heart. Drosselmeyer sees in the Stahlbaum’s daughter Clara the potential to be just that girl. Given the heartwarming plot this Nutcracker could easily slip up into kid-friendly Disney territory but, thanks to the dark German Romantic undertones, it also scores with grown ups.

Clara and Drosselmeyer in The Royal Ballet's Nutcracker. Photo: Dee Conway / ROH ©

Act I takes place at the Stahlbaum home where guests and family are gathered for a Christmas party. Drosselmeyer (a spot-on Will Tuckett) arrives with his deep turquoise cape, gadgets and plenty of magic tricks including giant dancing dolls and the gift of a Nutcracker doll for Clara. Blink and you will miss lovely details such as Gary Avis‘s very funny rheumatic Captain trying to prove “he’s still got it” in the elders dance and the Marzipan cake which will become the sugar-coated stage for the Act II divertissements. The only letdown here is Drosselmeyer’s mending of the Nutcracker doll after it is broken by Clara’s brother as he seems to repair it manually instead of magically as one would expect.

In her debut as Clara, Leanne Cope captures all the freshness of a teenager and her wonder at the supernatural events which unfold before her eyes. Her dancing too was charming despite a couple of early mishaps, presumably due to a slippery floor at the Stahlbaum home. Paul Kay showed beautiful lines and crisp dancing as Hans-Peter, with plenty of energy in the battle with the Mouse King.

In Act II the Stahlbaum home and the Land of Snow give way to the Land of Sweets (Comfiturembourg). Here the often disconnected sequence of divertissements is cleverly linked to the story with the full participation of Clara and Hans-Peter and a mime scene where they explain their battle with the Mouse King to their hosts Prince Coqueluche and The Sugar Plum Fairy (Steven McRae and Roberta Marquez).

Steven McRae as The Prince in The Nutcracker. Photo: Johan Persson / ROH ©

Steven has been filled with praise on opening night and deservedly so. Not only does he ace his variation, he also shows regal poise and gentlemanlike manners, taking a step back to let his ballerina shine. Roberta Marquez only keeps getting better (the McRae effect?). Her Sugar Plum Fairy is lovely and even if the tricky gargouillades do not yet fully come through she compensates with phrasing, accentuating gestures such as her delight at meeting her partner, full of rapport with McRae in the pas de deux. Here, both Roberta and Steven give us more than is arguably needed from a short role that calls for no more than solid technique and a beautiful display of line, where all the emotional punch is already contained in Tchaikovsky’s score. Elsewhere, Yuhui Choe was the most beautiful Rose Fairy and her escorts, led by Brian Maloney and Johannes Stepanek were flawless, the Russian dance with Ludovic Ondiviela and Kevin Emerton another highlight.

The closing sequence has Clara back in the real world wondering whether it was all just a dream. Soon a chance meeting with Hans-Peter on the street where she lives suggests quite the contrary. And while the final reunion between Drosselmeyer and Hans-Peter might bring a tear to one’s eye, once the curtain is down over wintry Nuremberg the audience is all smiles. Let Herr Drosselmeyer keep fulfilling his purpose for many years to come.

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Triple bills are a great opportunity to discover rarer ballets along with new works, an essential ingredient in preserving the future of this art form. The Royal Ballet’s latest features a modern and sizzling combination well suited to those seeking refuge from an evening of tutus and tiaras.  It opens with Agon, Balanchine’s iconic work in collaboration with Stravinsky and follows with Glen Tetley’s Sphinx, originally created for American Ballet Theatre (ABT) and newly acquired for the company. The bill closes with Wayne McGregor‘s new ballet, Limen, successor to his previous works Chroma and Infra.

Ed and Melissa in Limen

Melissa Hamilton and Edward Watson in The Royal Ballet’s Limen, choreographed by Wayne McGregor. Photo: Bill Cooper / ROH ©

Even if modern is not your thing, the genius concept behind Agon merits a visit. Balanchine built it from the interplay between 12 dancers and combinations of patterns and shapes. It demands pristine technique and inherent musicality to sustain the choreography. The steps are akin to those every dancer executes in class but here they do so with a twist (e.g. exaggerated arabesques) and at an incredibly fast tempo. It is always interesting to see the Royal Ballet tackle this type of abstract work because of their dramatic tradition and natural bond with the Ashton and MacMillan repertory. In their hands Agon goes beyond the exploration of movement and amalgamation with music (or its realisation in choreographical terms) and you sense at times they are trying to convey a string of short episodes.

The first cast includes up-and-coming soloists (Yuhui Choe, Hikaru Kobayashi and Brian Maloney) alongside established principals Carlos Acosta and Johan Kobborg and rising star Melissa Hamilton,  fresh from her MacMillan debut as Mary Vetsera last week. The leading men (Acosta and Kobborg, plus Valeri Hristov and Brian Maloney) make Agon’s tricky footwork sequences and off-centred positions look easy, though Daniel Capps‘s conducting seemed to be going against them towards the finale. The ladies were led by Mara Galeazzi, a charmer in the Bransle Gay and by Melissa Hamilton, in the pas de deux with Acosta. 21 year-old Melissa seemed entirely at home in the intricacies of the pas de deux, sinking into a penché so deep that her nose touched the knee as if it were no trouble at all. It was inspiring to see her unique blend of suppleness and elegance contrasting the earthy quality of Acosta’s partnering.

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Rupert Pennefather and Marianela Nuñez in Tetley’s Sphinx. Photo: Bill Cooper / ROH ©

Tetley’s Sphinx fits the company and this particular cast of dancers as snugly as their bodysuits. It must be quite a challenge to balance Tetley’s high-powered choreography with the characterization of each role but Edward Watson‘s acid orange Anubis dazzles and threatens with swirling diagonals while Rupert Pennefather, looking every inch the greek hero, partners solidly. The heart of the ballet comes in the shape of Marianela Nuñez as the Sphinx who risks her life in exchange for a promise of love, and who is ultimately betrayed. She initially appears dominant and powerful, with arms that recalled an elegant bird of prey, but after she whispers the answer to  her own riddle to Pennefather’s Oedipus she changes into a hopeless, defeated creature who now embraces mortality. Sphinx might not be everyone’s cup of tea (its costumes and designs look more Studio 54 than ballet) and those not familiar with Jean Cocteau’s take on Oedipus will be left scratching their heads. We like it, not only for the literary souces, but for its athleticism and this particular cast’s foolhardiness in performing this exhausting piece brilliantly in three consecutive days.

Ed in Sphinx

Edward Watson as Anubis in Glen Tetley's Sphinx (with Marianela Nuñez and Rupert Pennefather in the back). Photo: Bill Cooper / ROH ©

McGregor’s Limen is centred around the themes of life and death, light and darkness and the thresholds in-between, to align with Kaija Saariaho‘s cello concerto “Notes of Light”. Again McGregor taps strongly into technology, via Tatsuo Miyajima‘s designs and amazing lighting by Lucy Carter, to set the mood for the various movements in the music. Limen features a cast of 15 dancers, including many of his regulars.

The choreography stays true to McGregor’s trademark quick movements, contortions and extensions, although since Chroma he has been progressively softening his edgy dance language. There are also nods to previous ballets Agon and Sphinx (e.g. the iconic Agon attitude wrapping the man and the pirouettes with arms à la Sphinx) and, as such, Limen might be McGregor’s own version of a Balanchine ballet: what we are seeing really is a representation of the music and its subliminal message of light against darkness.

Limen opens with a translucent curtain in which numbers are projected, representing the passage of time. The cello’s voice cues in the orchestra  and behind the curtain we see Edward Watson mirroring the music and slowly moving through extensions while new dancers start to emerge  to match the remaining instruments. The second movement is led by Steven McRae and an ensemble of dancers, who become “alive” as they enter a colourful square of light. The orchestra takes over and energetically fights the cello, serving as a backdrop for McRae’s remarkable solo, which combines McGregor’s language with classical vocabulary.

Sarah and Eric in Limen

Sarah Lamb and Eric Underwood in The Royal Ballet’s Limen, choreographed by Wayne McGregor. Photo: Bill Cooper / ROH ©

Classical dance fully inhabits the third and fourth movements and their lyrical pas de deux. Marianela Nuñez and Brian Maloney echo the brief harmonious dialogue between the cello and the orchestra, while Sarah Lamb and Eric Underwood represent Saariaho’s cello eclipse. As Underwood embraces and lifts Sarah, she folds her body in every possible way (with the costumes and dark lighting enhancing the effect) to the fading sound of the instrument.

The final movement is a return to the light, symbolised by a panel of blue LED lights which loom over the dancers now dressed in flesh coloured leotards. Watson carries the emotional baggage of the movement, once more showing his wonderful use of extension. The ballet (or is it the music) ends with a question, as the cello sings its last note (a very high F sharp): have we reached the heart of light or are we back into darkness? The dancers face the back of the stage and the lights dim, Watson the only dancer who stands at a threshold between this ensemble and the front of the stage. Once again McGregor has delivered a keeper, perhaps even a natural conclusion to the trilogy that started with Chroma (Chroma is the absence from white, while Limen might be the absence of colour). It has become clear that he is now more comfortable with classical vocabulary and could be interesting to see what choreographic surprises he might throw at us from now on. We can’t wait.

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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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Our Mayerling crusade continues with new casts, some debuts and thus interesting new takes on MacMillan’s iconic characters. There are very few lead roles that challenge a danseur’s technique, stamina and dramatic skills as does Crown Prince Rudolf and for Rupert Pennefather to have been offered the opportunity to dance it at such young age is a testament to the company’s trust in his abilities. It takes time to develop a character such as Rudolf. Interpretations such as the ones given by Edward Watson and Johan Kobborg earlier on were mature and full of subtleties, each of these dancers presenting the choreography under a new light: Watson emphazising his extensions to dramatic advantage, Kobborg fleshing out his innate musicality (our take on these previous performances [here] and [here]). Up until now Rupert has been cast in roles that fit his danseur noble physique, so with only one scheduled performance of his second full-length MacMillan role (the first having been Romeo) this was a much needed chance to extend his range as a Principal dancer.

MAYERLING.RB.7-10-2009

Rupert Pennefather and Melissa Hamilton in the Royal Ballet's Mayerling. Photo: Bill Cooper / ROH ©

We were again reminded of MacMillan’s amazing ability to show us characters and feelings that are real, each dancer having to find his own motives in portraying the lead role. Pennefather’s Rudolf is initially presented as a stressed heir. Product of an environment where decisions are made for him, the adult Rudolf has remained a spoiled child who longs to be behind his mother’s skirt. This juvenile angle works well for Rupert, not least because of his own young age. Rudolf seems particularly vulnerable in the Act I scene with his mother Empress Elizabeth, whom he sees as a model against which to measure all other women. He relishes being around the strong types (Larisch and Mary), despising those he perceives as weak (case in point, Princess Stephanie).  Technically Rupert was poised and clean, despite some early struggles with the phrasing in Rudolf’s particularly demanding ballroom solo. His various pas de deux were outstanding, his partners fueling his characterization, the dancing more relaxed and fluid. The remarkable last pas de deux in Act 3 looked as good as any other in the run, in no small part due to Rupert’s chemistry with an amazing Mary Vetsera (Melissa Hamilton).

Even though Mayerling is all about the male lead, Rupert’s debuting leading ladies must also have their share of praise. First Artist Melissa Hamilton was a highly anticipated Mary Vetsera. Her beautiful extensions and her supple body have made her a highlight in modern one-act ballets such as McGregor‘s Infra (where she created a role), Wheeldon‘s DGV and Marriott‘s Sensorium. Regulars were curious to see her bridge the gap between this modern niche and the classical repertory. Cast as Mary ahead of several more experienced dancers, Hamilton’s interpretation was very secure. She sparked Pennefather’s Rudolf in such a way  as to make their scenes together not just the evening’s highlight, but a memorable event at Covent Garden. We hope to see more great things from her soon (on that note, next week we get to see her in Limen opposite Edward Watson).

MAYERLING.RB.7-10-2009

Rupert Pennefather as Crown Prince Rudolf and Melissa Hamilton as Mary Vetsera in Mayerling Photo: Bill Cooper / ROH ©

The always sharp Marianela Nuñez as the sultry Countess Larisch proves how broad her range is, shifting gears from the sunny Lilac Fairy of last Friday into manipulative vixen here.  It is redundant to praise Marianela for her flawless technique, therefore we can focus on the strength of her characterization as the passionate mistress who has a boy to keep her entertained while scheming and plotting to amuse herself in the Austro-Hungarian court. She was particulary insidious when feeding Mary’s fantasies about Crown Prince Rudolf.

Among the youngsters, the graceful Elizabeth Harrod was an effective Princess Stephanie and Brian Maloney looked poised and charming as Bratfisch. As  for the Hungarian Officers, it was good to see Ludovic Ondiviela as one, while Sergei Polunin has become pure sharpness punctuated by technical wizardry (e.g. an impressive series of three double tours en l’air) as their lead. This was a Mayerling in which to admire the company’s deep pool of talent in fresh new opportunities. Hopefully it won’t be long till we get to see Pennefather’s Rudolf and Hamilton’s Mary Vetsera again.

The Royal Ballet’s Mayerling is in repertoire until November 10. Book via the ROH website, by telephone or by visiting the Box Office.

For more on Mayerling, Kenneth MacMillan’s Choreographic Imagination and Psychological Insight Symposium will be held on November 8, 2009 at Imperial College London, as part of Kenneth MacMillan’s 80th Anniversary Celebrations. For more information visit www.kennethmacmillan80thanniversary.com

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While over this side of the channel we continue to bury ourselves in Mayerlings and other fall season balletic offerings, Paris Opera Ballet  has returned to the Palais Garnier from their summer break with the eternal Romantic classic Giselle. As they are just a couple of hours away by Eurostar, our friend Juliet Ashdown could not resist the lure of a daytrip. Here she shares some impressions of last week’s performance:

Mathias Heymann and Dorothée Gilbert in a rehearsal of Giselle. Source: Syltren.blogspot.com Copyright belongs to its respective owners.

Mathias Heymann and Dorothée Gilbert in a rehearsal of Giselle. Source: Syltren.blogspot.com Copyright belongs to its respective owners.

It has often been remarked that the Paris Opera Ballet dancers might seem cold in their interpretation of ballet classics which prioritizes classical excellence over drama. It is true that in this Giselle, adapted by Patrice Bart from the original choreography by Jean Coralli, Jules Perrot and Marius Petipa, the first act mime is not conveyed as clearly as in Sir Peter Wright‘s production for the Royal Ballet and it is also true that the dancers lack a certain warmth overall, but they more than make up for it with their stylish dancing.

Fortunately Alexander Benois‘s staging leaves them more room to display all this style, with the two huts set further back in the stage and a backcloth with a castle far in the distance, making the Royal Ballet’s sets seem cluttered by comparison.  The colours for sets and dancers are also brighter here, with creams, reds and greens.  The peasants’ dresses are longer and floaty, although it is a pity that the puffed sleeves should give them such an aristocratic air.

While Dorothée Gilbert‘s more reserved Giselle did not act out the most poignant mad scene I have ever seen,  she really came into her own in Act 2, so assured and elegant, her first développé into arabesque long held and rock solid. She dazzlingly travelled though her series of backward entrechats and in the main pas de deux with Matthias Heymann‘s Albrecht, she was enthralling, ethereal.

22-year old Heymann, POB’s newest (and youngest) étoile had only recently debuted as Albrecht. He was excellent, his grief totally embodied in the role, his dancing fautless. His jumps are very powerful but understated enough to show the grim situation he finds himself in whilst overpowered by the Wilis. However, there was nothing understated about his flawless series of over 30 entrechats-six, which earned him an enthusiastic  mid-performance ovation.

From left to right, Matthias Heymann, Dorothée Gilbert and Stéphanie

From left to right, étoiles Matthias Heymann and Dorothée Gilbert and Premiere Danseuse Stéphanie Romberg. Source: POB © Copyright belongs to its respective authors.

The 2nd Act of Paris Opera Ballet’s Giselle is one of the most beautiful I have ever seen, not only because of the perfection of their strong corps who present us with a superb Wilis scene but also thanks to the gorgeous sets and costumes. The Wilis’ tutus are of the lightest fabric and look more shimmery than those worn in the Royal Ballet version, their veils disappear all at once thanks to crafty pulling from the stage wings.  In the background we see the ruins of an abbey and Giselle’s grave has a large cross from which we see her rise.

Yet, it is not just the stagecraft but the little details, like Myrtha’s (Stéphanie Romberg) chilling crown which looks like ice from the back of her head or the way she bourrées forward so silently, so ghost-like, that make this Giselle such an endearing production.

Juliet Ashdown

The Wilis in Paris Opera Ballets production of Giselle. Source: syltren.blogspot.com Copyright belongs to its respective owners.

The Wilis in Paris Opera Ballet's production of Giselle. Source: syltren.blogspot.com Copyright belongs to its respective owners.

This is a review for the matinée performance held on October 10, 2009 at the Palais Garnier. Giselle is in repertoire until the 12th of October. Casting available from the Paris Opera Ballet’s Website.

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Sergey Diaghilev circa 1916. From the Dance Collection, NY Public Library / Astor, Lenox & Tilden Foundations ©. Source: Britannica.com

Sergey Diaghilev circa 1916. From the Dance Collection, NY Public Library / Astor, Lenox & Tilden Foundations ©. Source: Britannica.com

Diaghilev was a man ahead of his time, a visionary capable of bringing together the most talented artists of his generation and nurturing them into creating new collaborative works of art. Had it not been for his vision, the West might never have known of Nijinsky, Stravinsky or Balanchine. The face of dance would have been very different today without his Ballets Russes.

As ballet companies and theatres around the world pay well deserved homage, in various different shapes and forms, to one hundred years of Ballet Russes, Sadler’s Wells decided to focus theirs on Diaghilev’s spirit of collaborative work. Thus, Artistic Director Alistair Spalding commissioned four brand new pieces inspired by or connected in some way to the Ballets Russes at their most influential. Spalding chose four associated artists of Sadler’s Wells – Wayne McGregor (who is also the Royal Ballet’s resident choreographer) Russell Maliphant, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Javier De Frutos – to respond in a variety of ways, collaborating with various designers, dancers and musicians while staying true to their own dance language.

The evening’s opener was McGregor’s Dyad 1909, a ballet for seven dancers to an original score by Ólafur Arnalds. Inspired by the scientific, social and technological developments of Diaghilev’s time, most notably Ernest Shackleton‘s expedition to reach the magnetic South Pole, McGregor developed his choreography with the aid of multi-screen video installations depicting machines (by Jane & Louise Wilson), brilliant lighting which suggested the Antartic (by Lucy Carter) and an almost-classical score which fused strings and piano with industrial and electronic sounds, all of these elements nodding to his  backstory.

Dance-wise this was standard McGregor fare. Hyperextended bodies, mobile arms (which at times seemed to mime the operation of machines) and supple contorting backs. More than once I was reminded of last year’s Infra, particularly as the dancers entered and exited to similar stage cues, wearing similar costumes. There were some beautiful, memorable sequences including a pas de deux to the sound of Arnalds’ gorgeous string quartet where McGregor applied classical lines (a cabriolé here, a pirouette there and some rounded soft arms among the lifts) and an ensemble of five dancers moving in unison through a diagonal in a faster-than-light pace. It is not his best piece but it is still one that reminds us how McGregor is a master of controlling the visual impressions he leaves on the audience. His talent is evident but one wishes he would drop his signature off-centered hip and brought in new elements into the mix more often.

Nijinskys Dancer circa 1917/18. Copyright: Stiftung John Neumeier - Dance Collection © Source: ArtsDesk

Nijinsky's 'Dancer' circa 1917/18. Copyright: Stiftung John Neumeier - Dance Collection © Source: ArtsDesk

Next was Russell Maliphant’s AfterLight, as inspired by a Nijinsky drawing of a dancer (see left). Set to Erik Satie‘s Gnossiennes, the choreography builds  on the interplay between light and dancer Daniel Proietto. He moves in circles creating  forms that fuse with the patterns of light and shadow reflected on the floor. Lighting designer Michael Hull’s  brilliant work emphasizes the flowing movement which starts from the dancers’ extremities and propagates to swirls of light surrounding him, in a sea of clouds. This visually stunning live realisation of Nijinsky’s sketch was the most applauded and (at least in my opinion) the most memorable choreography of the evening.

Cherkaoui’s Faun was probably the piece most directly connected to the Ballets Russes and to Nijinsky’s own scandalous version. James O’Hara’s Faun  looked  as if he had been teleported from an Animal Planet documentary: platinum blonde hair, thin limbs, an almost animal quality to his persona. The faun emerges from the shadows morphing from shape to shape, at times lingering in yoga-like poses, at times swiftly moving from one into the next. The stage finally illuminates to reveal the Nymph (Daisy Phillips) in an ethereal forest, the two beings meet and through Cherkaoui’s choreography we see them evolve from two separate bodies into a single one. For all its sensuality and exuberance, there were also moments of sheer athleticism (no doubt inspired by Nijinsky’s legendary skills) and with Nitin Sawhney’s additional music complementing Debussy‘s original score, we see beautiful intimate scenes between those two mythical creatures.

The evening closer  – Javier De Frutos’ Eternal Damnation to Sancho and Sanchez – was described in the programme as a “satirical ballet inspired by scenarios of Jean Cocteau“. It involved a deformed Pope, three pregnant muses, an Apollo/priest figure and plenty of explicit sexual images to a litany of the Holy Mary’s last verse (in Spanish). Provocation and controversy were no doubt De Frutos’ biggest drivers (read Ismene Brown’s recent interview with him), but to me his choice of topic seemed too obvious, too easy. No prizes for guessing that graphic images of a Pope having sexual relations with at least three characters under a neon caption which reads “Amuse me!” will provoke the audience. It was a dumbed down way to create an anticlimactic finale and I left wishing that De Frutos would have really amused me instead. Even though Diaghilev had a thing for “le succès de scandale”, he always knew the value of a good ending, and as de Frutos recently noted to Ismene Brown (see above link), one would have the “scandalous” Rite of Spring but this was followed by Balanchine’s beautiful Apollo and the evening would end on a high. Perhaps this piece of Diaghilev wisdom should have been taken into account when planning the order of the programme.

In the Spirit of Diaghilev runs at Sadler’s Wells until the 17th of October. For information and bookings, visit Sadler’s Wells website.

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Mayerling may not  be for everyone, but it is an undeniable example of how ballet can go beyond technical prowess or fairy-tale narrative, geometrical patterns or musical convention. Kenneth MacMillan’s work reaches for the core of human emotions, both the good and the bad, digging deep into the grittiest, the most horrific and perverse of human psyche to turn it into ballet, an art form usually associated with qualities of beauty and harmony. Unsuspecting audiences may be distraught by his choreography, by such an explicit portrayal of the perverse and sinister within men against the various forms of love.

Beyond its lavish designs and opulent costumes which aid in framing a decadent society and its excesses, the ballet largely depends on a strong lead, as its focus is the character of Crown Prince Rudolf. The fact that no one knows what really happened in the event known as the Mayerling incident is not very important for the purpose of MacMillan’s ballet. I now see that the incident only served as a canvas on which he could draw his characters and frame their specific interrelations. Rudolf, a character so shrouded in mystery, presents to the  male dancer an opportunity to create a very individual reading. For this reason it demands mature dancers at the height of their dramatic and dancing powers, dancers who can generate a realistic impression, which is something Johan Kobborg excels at.

Mayerling Cast. From left clockwise. Leanne Benjamin as Mary Vetsera, Johan Kobborg as Crown Prince Rudolf, Laura Morera as Countess Larisch, Deirdre Chapman as Empress Elizabeth, Helen Crawford as Mitzi Caspar and José Martín as the lead Hungarian Officer. Source: ROH ©. Copyright belongs to its respective owners.

Mayerling Cast. From left clockwise. Leanne Benjamin as Mary Vetsera, Johan Kobborg as Crown Prince Rudolf, Laura Morera as Countess Larisch, Deirdre Chapman as Empress Elizabeth, Helen Crawford as Mitzi Caspar and José Martín as the lead Hungarian Officer. Source: ROH ©. Copyright belongs to its respective owners.

Presenting us with an innermost portrayal of Rudolf that heavily contrasted with all other readings of the character I’ve seen before, Kobborg emphasises the darkness his character carries inside, the willingness to carry through unimaginable deeds. Right from the start we see how he is afftected by the particular demands and pressures of his position as Crown Prince and by his incestuous relationship with a domineering mother. We also note Rudolf’s violent behaviour when in contact with Countess Larisch (a well cast Laura Morera) and his wife Princess Stephanie (Emma Maguire), but the way he quickly regains self-control hints at something inherent to Rudolf’s character which he tries to keep “in check”. The pas de deux with Empress Elizabeth (Deirdre Chapman) clearly establishes the twisted relationship between mother and son and shows how Rudolf could be both abusing and abused. The weight of this encounter still looms over the following pas de deux as a twisted and psychopathic Rudolf threatens his wife Princess Stephanie with a pistol on their Wedding night.

Johan Kobborg as Crown Prince Rudolf in Mayerling. Photo: Bill Cooper / ROH © Source: Voice of Dance

Johan Kobborg as Crown Prince Rudolf in Mayerling. Photo: Bill Cooper / ROH © Source: Voice of Dance

Rudolf  has given into a life of “alcohol and whores at the tavern” but when it comes to his mother’s own love affair, he takes issue and reacts as an offended lover. As he dances a solo which speaks of the guilt for those feelings towards his mother, he struggles to keep his inner demons at bay, his steps conveying despair and even horror at his own feelings as Countess Larisch tries to comfort him. It is at this point that Mary Vetsera enters the picture and raises the stakes.  Few can project all of Mary’s complexities like Leanne Benjamin. Her Vetsera is a joyous girl destroyed by the romantic obsession she builds once fuelled by Larisch’s stories about Rudolf. From their first meeting we see someone who is capable of loving him, albeit in a twisted, sick way. Kobborg’s Rudolf sees Mary as just another woman at first, but once she rushes for his gun and points it towards him, his dark side resurfaces  and obsessive feelings surge towards her. Needless to say, both Kobborg and Benjamin delivered a pas de deux full of passion playing with the concept of control and role reversal between these two twisted minds.

By the final act, following an accidental killing at his hunting lodge, Kobborg’s Rudolf is a shattered, broken man who is a shadow of himself and now allows the darkness inside to flow, his body ravaged by mental and physical disease. Since the script simply indicates that Mary and Rudolf made a pact to end their lives, what really happens between them greatly varies with each interpretation. In this reading it seemed to me that as Mary arrives at the hunting lodge she realises that the only way to heal Rudolf is to die with him, while for Rudolf killing her is both an act of selfishness and of salvation from his inner feelings towards her. As they dance a deeply upsetting final pas de deux our minds question whether this disturbed and horrible person could really have had any capacity to love.

With great performances, despite a few start of season glitches, from a  strong supporting cast including Laura Morera as Countess Larisch, Helen Crawford as Mitzi Caspar and José Martín as the lead Hungarian officer much added to the evening’s drama, but all in all, Mayerling will always be about the lead and here Kobborg more than delivered.

See also: our take on the Edward Watson/Mara Galeazzi cast

The Royal Ballet’s Mayerling is in repertoire until November 10. Book via the ROH website, by telephone or by visiting the Box Office.

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In the August edition of Dancing Times Magazine there is an interesting article which looks back on the history of the “Soviet Sleeping Beauty”, the version the Mariinsky have brought to this tour in London (they also have a Vikharev reconstruction of Petipa’s older version which is currently shelved though perhaps not permanently). According to Nadine Meisner, author of the article,  the version we now see is a collage of the 1952 Konstantin Sergeyev work which replaced Petipa’s original to better appeal to the demands of that era. Thus, large chunks of ballet mime have been cut, the fairies given new steps to dance and the Panorama/Aurora Vision scene recreated entirely.

Olesya Novikova as Aurora, in Mariinskys The Sleeping Beauty. Photo: Cal Performances © Source: Voice of Dance.

Ekaterina Osmolkina as Aurora, in Mariinsky's The Sleeping Beauty. Photo: Cal Performances © Source: Voice of Dance.

The Sleeping Beauty is a ballet that can easily fall into overly sweet & cute territory and Sergeyev’s version seems not ashamed of going into full twee mode, with the garland waltz a parade of cherub-like children, too many fairy tale characters (most of them do not get a solo) crowding the festivities in the final act and with less layers of symbolism to compensate. The lack of sensitive handling of the tale is for me its biggest letdown. Take for instance the fairies in the prologue. What I adore about the Royal Ballet’s version is that choreographic allusions from each of these fairy variations are discreetly built into 16 year old Aurora’s solos showing us that she is the sum of all gifts bestowed on her: purity, grace, generosity, musicality, etc. Here Aurora’s bond with the fairies goes unnoticed.

The critic Clive Barnes had noted after seeing it in 1961 that “the Kirov take a less dramatic view of the ballet than we in England”. There is less delicacy, no doubt due to the historical context in which it was conceived, and this shows in the toned down mime which omits the Lilac Fairy’s reassurances that should Aurora prick her finger she will merely fall asleep, not die. Or in the beginning of the vision scene where the Lilac Fairy does not have to convince Prince Desiré that she has a cure for his blues, it’s almost as if he knows she is a woman on a mission and he’s onboard immediately. Aurora’s development from playful adolescence to mature woman at her wedding is never fully revealed to the audience either.

The spindle – or the lack thereof – is another issue I take with the Konstantin Sergeyev text. It is the object of Carabosse’s curse to Aurora: she will prick her finger on a spindle and die. To avoid this, the King banishes all prickly objects from his kingdom. Fast forward 16 years and we see Aurora triumphing as the center of all attentions in her birthday party until she sees this shiny, pointy object that she has never seen before; think of all psychological connotations that are fitting here, the allure of danger, teenage rebellion. She has got to have that spindle, grabs it enthusiastically to the dismay of her parents, pricks self, brings about the curse. In Sergeyev’s version all this wonderful symbology is lost to us because Carabosse hides the spindle in a flower bouquet which she offers to the princess, just like Gamzatti does to Nikiya in La Bayadère. Aurora never even registers the presence of a spindle. And how insensitive this is.

Lilac Fairy in Mariinskys The Sleeping Beauty. Source: Mariinsky Theatre

Lilac Fairy in Mariinsky's The Sleeping Beauty. Source: Mariinsky Theatre.

But I don’t wish to imply that the production is entirely devoid of virtues. Ekaterina Kondaurova is a warm Lilac fairy and her dancing is magic in itself, so secure and at the same time so fluid, the choreography giving her more to do than elsewhere. I find the Panorama scene  ideal (despite its early conclusion due to the Lilac Fairy’s boat malfunctioning!). It’s here that we can marvel at the Mariinsky’s solid corps and where Evgenia Obraztsova looks like a true vision which Igor Kolb’s prince Désiré treats as the most precious thing he has ever laid eyes on. There are a lot more opportunities for Prince Désiré to display his bravura and drive, as he vividly responds to the vision of Aurora and battles with Carabosse (superbly played by Islom Baimuradov) and minions. This prince will do whatever it takes to find the princess of his dreams, Kolb’s every step and gesture indicating this urge.

Sergeyev also treats us to a wonderful version of the wedding pas de deux:  this particular choreography of Aurora’s variation, beginning with the hops on pointe and arms that sing, is the moment I long for the most all evening and here, thanks to Obraztsova, it is full of musicality and grace. Obraztsova & Kolb are elegant, noble and entirely convincing. If there’s little symbolism at least there’s plenty of classicism for us to take home.

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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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