English National Ballet pays tribute to a ballet legend

United KingdomUnited Kingdom A Tribute to Rudolf Nureyev: Dancers and Orchestra of English National Ballet / Gavin Sutherland (conductor), London Coliseum, London, 25.7.2013. (JPr)

Rudolf Nureyev as Petrushka (c) Victoria and Albert Museum London

Petrushka (Folkine/Stravinsky)
Anton Lukovkin (Petrushka)
Fernanda Oliveira (Ballerina)
Yonah Acosta (Moor)

Song of a Wayfarer (Béjart/Mahler)
Francisco Bosch
Fabian Reimair
Nicholas Lester (guest singer)

Raymonda Act III (Nureyev after Petipa/Glazunov)
Elena Glurdjidze (Raymonda)
Dimitri Gruzdyev (Jean de Brienne)

This was a fitting celebration to remind balletomanes of a certain age of how important Rudolf Nureyev was to many of us who began going to ballet in our formative years when he was dancing. It is 75 years since his birth and 20 years since his sad, premature – and let’s be brutally honest – virtually ‘self-inflicted’ death. We will never see his like again but he can never be forgotten because of his zealotry in always giving male dancers – especially himself – as much to do as possible in any new version of the classics. He may not have always got the balance perfectly right; but what he did was often thought-provoking and spectacular, as witnessed by his stagings of Sleeping Beauty (1975) and Romeo and Juliet (1977) for London Festival Ballet (as English National Ballet was then) that I grew up going to see time and again. In the 1980s I also saw him dance in his wonderful Swan Lake that he created in 1964 at the Vienna State Opera and that remains in their repertory to this day. It was one of my most memorable evenings ever at the ballet.

Before this triple bill, ENB – while subliminally ‘plugging’ their forthcoming Le Corsaire that promises to be ‘memorable’ in its own way and a ‘must-see’ – showed a short intelligent film praising Nureyev: it began with the familiar footage of him dancing with Fonteyn in the pas de deux from that ballet. There were many warm words of tribute from former colleagues but for those not there I will refer to a few sentences written in the programme by the doyen of British ballet critics, Clement Crisp, with which I cannot but wholeheartedly agree. He explained how Nureyev was a ‘stellar stage presence, and an insatiable, unassuageable performer. It seemed that no stage was too inconsiderable, no vast auditorium too large, to offer him the chance to perform, to display that seemingly irresistible presence. Month-long engagements – “Rudolf Nureyev will appear at every performance” boasted the publicity – testified to his drawing power, his dedication to dancing, his eclectic choices of repertory. He could, and did, galvanise ensembles as well as box offices and, most tellingly, audiences who might otherwise not have considered ballet as something worthy of their cash and their attentions. He served as example for a huge public of what dancing in the theatre could mean, and for the more critical eye, of what stellar presence could do to rehabilitate ballets, or to blend choreography to his own technical and idiosyncratic ends, or to cast some transforming spell over inept, fatuous creation.’

I know what he means, but there were certainly nothing ‘fatuous’ about the three short ballets ENB presented in this Nureyev tribute. I saw the first matinee performance and with the casting relying less on the starriest names on their roster and a judicious mix of youthful talent and one particular ‘old stager’ it was good to be able to assess the company’s strength in depth at a time when they seem on the rise whilst their ‘rivals’, the Royal Ballet, are in apparent decline.

I saw Nureyev perform many times in Petrushka, the sublime 1911 collaboration between Fokine and Stravinsky. This is an ironic look at life in Russia at that time juxtaposing all the fun of a 1830s’ fair with hints of something much darker in the antics of the central triumvirate of puppets: Petrushka, ballerina and Moor. (Of course modern sensibilities means the ‘Moor’ is not what he was – think Black and White Minstrel, if you must) and Yonah Acosta’s more natural lifelike appearance unbalances the drama somewhat. The best way I can put it is there was a neurotic angst to Petrushka’s infatuation for the ballerina (here the very precise and pert Fernanda Oliveira) that the otherwise suitably loose-limbed Anton Lukovkin failed to capture. His banging with his mittened hands on the walls of his cell should break our hearts; and we must feel really sad when he is cut down by the Moor’s sabre so that his subsequent resurrection creates a genuine frisson. Nureyev gave the puppet this true pathos, but Lukovkin couldn’t. The whole company danced with good spirit but against the backdrop of Alexander Benois’ vibrant designs and in his equally colourful, elaborate costumes – with lots of whiskers (for the men!) – it seemed more like of a cartoon version of the St Petersburg fair than the insight into real Russian life that Fokine and Stravinsky probably wanted.

This was an enjoyable performance with good support from the ENB’s own musicians under the reliable baton of Gavin Sutherland. There were vivid orchestral colours for the Stravinsky and for the Mahler and much fun was had by all with the lighter fare that Glazunov provided for Raymonda. Why is the music when played live always neglected by most ballet critics but they are only too ready to complain if it is recorded?

It was good to see Maurice Béjart’s Song of a Wayfarer that he created for Nureyev in 1971 to Mahler’s song cycle (Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen) that more or less expresses the turmoil of a Romantic wayfarer who goes from town to town looking for freedom but is condemned by destiny to a life of eternal unhappiness and loneliness. Replace ‘wayfarer’ or ‘traveller’ with ballet dancer and Béjart’s simple elegiac two-hander becomes almost autobiographical if we consider Nureyev restlessly going from company to company but never able to go back to his homeland. Francisco Bosch was the youth and Fabian Reimair the destiny/death figure always pulling him back as he yearns for life and love. This was well executed. However although there was a contrast between the two men I thought Bosch had the colder, more detached persona and Reimair, as the more expressive dancer, revealed more emotion. I wondered whether to empathise more with their dancing it would have been better had they swapped their ‘roles’?

I did see Nureyev dance this once I believe and if memory serves me right his performance had more heart and more sense of yearning and loss than Bosch could give it, despite his clear storytelling. Again in most reviews the soloist will be neglected but the songs were sung live by baritone Nicholas Lester. Obviously there was no great nuance to his clearly enunciated rendition – and it took a while for his voice to rise from significant bass depths – however his was a voice I would happily hear singing Mahler again.

Act III of Raymonda concluded the tribute and inhabits a different ballet world from what had gone before. It is pure classicism in an opulent Byzantine setting (by Barry Kay) with Nureyev recreating in 1964 what he remembered he had seen of the complex Petipa’s 1898 choreography. The corps de ballet throughout looked relaxed, smiled broadly and seemed thoroughly to be enjoying themselves. The four solo variations are fiendishly difficult but the challenge was met by Fernanda Oliveira, Erina Takahashi and Crystal Costa with the always effortlessly musical and eye-catching, Nancy Osbaldeston particularly exquisite in Variation 2. Elena Glurdjidze, Dimitri Gruzdyev, as Raymonda and Jean de Brienne, gave incisively clean performances. Perhaps I would have liked Gruzdyev to throw himself more into the pyrotechnics as these could have benefited from a little more élan. However Glurdjidze was a revelation to me and is someone I would like to see dancing more often. She exuded genuine ‘star quality’ that I believe Nureyev would have adored and her solo was wonderfully mesmeric and expressive: she drew out her poses and fixed the audience with ‘don’t take your eyes off me’ flashing glances before moving on, every gesture precise yet expansive. Throughout she revealed a rhythmic flexibility and grace in her dancing that raised this afternoon’s performance to a whole new level.

Jim Pritchard

For more about the English National Ballet’s forthcoming performances www.ballet.org.uk.

For details about the Rudolf Nureyev Foundation visit www.nureyev.org.