The Royal Ballet’s Dancers Shine in 2019’s Russian Ballet Icons Gala at the London Coliseum

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Various Composers, Russian Ballet Icons Gala 2019: Guest dancers, English National Ballet Philharmonic / Valery Ovsyanikov (conductor). London Coliseum, 31.3.2019. (JPr)

Russian Ballet Icons Gala 2019 (c) Jack Devant

Duets and solos from The Flames of Paris, La Sylphide, Raymonda, Don Quixote, Schéhérazade, Swan Lake, and La Bayadère; more recent choreographies, Lullaby, Zapateado, Qualia, The Cuban Nutcracker, Cantata, Carmen, Transparente, On the Nature of Daylight, and Pacopepepluto.

Dancers: Sergio Bernal (Ballet Nacional de España), Joseph Caley (English National Ballet, Elisa Carrillo Cabrera (Staatsballett Berlin), Jeffrey Cirio and Katja Khaniukova (English National Ballet), Misa Kuranaga (Boston Ballet), Patrick Holeček (Czech National Ballet), Mikhail Kaniskin (Staatsballett Berlin), Kristina Kornova (Czech National Ballet), Maria Kochetkova and Liudmila Konovalova (Vienna State Ballet), Ekaterina Krysanova (Bolshoi Theatre), Lucía Lacarra (Bayerisches Staatsballett), Sarah Lamb (Royal Ballet), Julian MacKay (Mikhailovsky Theatre), Yasmine Naghdi (Royal Ballet), Giuseppe Picone (Teatro di San Carlo), Marcelino Sambé (Royal Ballet), Polina Semionova and Daniil Simkin (Staatsballett Berlin), James Stout and Anna Tsygankova (Dutch National Ballet), Josué Ullate (Víctor Ullate Ballet), Ivan Vasiliev (Mikhailovsky Theatre), Edward Watson (Royal Ballet), and Ivan Zaiteev (Mikhailovsky Theatre)

Ensemble Productions presented once more their Russian Ballet Icons Gala that has been an annual event since 2006. Getting the roster of talented dancers from the world’s leading ballet companies together for these one-off celebrations of ‘the legacy of the legendary Russian Ballet’ continues to be a mightily impressive achievement. (Equally impressively, they also seem to be able to cope with any apparent last-minute absences of certain advertised dancers without having to change the programme.) As ever Olga Balakleets, Ensemble’s founder and artistic director – and all involved – deserve the highest praise for their achievement and for what is always a very smoothly presented occasion.

For this evening we had what Graham Watts in the glossy programme described as ‘the best of ballet from across Europe: not solely from Russia, but also from Italy, the UK and from Spain’. For all of the ‘party pieces’ and unfamiliar works the stage remained bare (apart from the odd chair) but there are the usual – often exquisite – costumes and wonderful scene setting projections at the rear  and mood changing lighting from Rafael Porzycki (creative director) and Nina Kobiashvili (set designer). I repeat my one minor criticism from previous years and suggest that in the brief moment of blackout between the works we could be shown what we will be seeing and the name(s) of the dancers.

Clement Crisp’s informative essay in the programme about the Russian Ballet in Britain began ‘The history of ballet in Britain over the past century is one massively influenced by Russia, by its dancers, its creativity, its rebels, its ideals’. How fitting it was that this year’s Gala was billed as ‘A Tribute to Victor Hochhauser’ the impresario who died recently at the age of 95. He did so much to open Western doors for artists from the former Soviet Union, including Rudolf Nureyev, the Bolshoi and Kirov ballets.

My introduction to ballet was during the memorable days of – as Clement Crisp wrote – ‘great dancers who had quit the Kirov troupe – Rudolf Nureyev, Natalya Makarova, Mikhail Baryshnikov – who brought artistry, sublime dancing and creative energies, which would shape and colour Western ballet and public perceptions about Russian art’. Nureyev got several mentions in the programme though – as wonderful as nearly all the dancing was – none of the men showed any of his stage presence. I was looking forward to some of this from Ivan Vasiliev whose performances I have enjoyed in the past, however sadly he was far from his best in a familiar extract from Schéhérazade as the Golden Slave alongside Ekaterina Krysanova’s slinky sultriness. I am delighted to write the male dancer who caught the eye most was The Royal Ballet’s young Marcelino Sambé in the Don Quixote grand pas de deux dancing with the equally impressive Yasmine Naghdi, another Royal Ballet dancer I would like to see more of in the future.

Some modern works required recordings but more often than not the dancing had the music played live by the English National Ballet Philharmonic under the baton of the Mariinsky’s Valery Ovsyanikov. This is a remarkable ensemble, and – considering both the eclectic assortment of scores and probable lack of rehearsal time – I wonder if they have ever played better than this. Ovsyanikov brought great energy to all the bravura leaping and spinning music yet, as ever, supported with practised ease slower passages or any demanding steps and balances.

Katja Khaniukova and Julian MacKay drew the short straw of starting the proceedings with the pas de deux from Vassily Vainonen’s Flames of Paris while most of the audience were settling into their seats. Despite Khaniukova’s vivacity – and the first of the virtuosic sequences of fouettés that were dotted throughout the evening – the flames failed to ignite. Radu Poklitaru’s Lullaby was next and was the first of a number (too many?) similar one man/one woman duets by contemporary choreographers to eclectic but somewhat interchangeable music and in rather skimpy interchangeable dancewear. At some point in these hands will reach out, or one leg will be extended forward or back, also, the woman will be frequently manhandled, she will also often splay her legs and at several points in the piece both will intertwine. It would have been interesting to see some variation; possibly two men or two women, or three or more people involved. Anyway Lullaby was first and was quite engrossing and I got from it that Patrick Holeček was the puppet master to his Coppélia-like Czech National Ballet colleague Kristina Kornova. This was later followed by Wayne McGregor’s 2003 Qualia pas de deux choreographed for Edward Watson and Leanne Benjamin. It was a delight to see Watson dancing this once again, this time with the striking Sarah Lamb. The work had all the tropes alluded to above but held my attention throughout its short span. Thereafter there were diminishing returns from other duets like this (Cantata, Transparente and On the Nature of Daylight) as the same movements were seen time and again.

In between Lullaby and Qualia there was the extraordinary flamencoing of Sergio Bernal in Antonio Ruiz Soler’s Zapateado: his footwork was quicksilver and his hands were very expressive. It perhaps just went on a bit too long. Then Daniil  Simkin and Maria Kochetkova were pure joy in the Act II pas de deux from La Sylphide and they did full justice to Bournonville’s wafting choreography. Julian Mackay returned with a chance to show-off in Alisher Khazanov’s The Cuban Nutcracker and tried hard to please. Joseph Caley then stepped in to replace a previous announced dancer and partner Ekaterina Krysanova for the Raymonda wedding pas de deux. This brought back memories of the times I saw Rudolf Nureyev dance this and despite the odd moment of insecurity from an unfamiliar partnership they were a shining exemplar of classical technique.

Lucia Lacarra & Josué Ullate in Carmen (c) Jack Devant

Victor Ullate’s Carmen – that was danced by his son Josué with the languorous Lucia Lacarra – was for me one of the highlights of this Gala and the only duet I would want to see again. Ullate’s Carmen is about rampant sexual desire and intimacy in a prison setting and he throws into the choreographic mix an intriguing role reversal aspect, as well as, sex acts. The dancers showed that they clearly understood the essence of the piece and from the ovation they received this had resonated with the entire audience.

Misa Kuranaga and Jeffrey Cirio (who I understand have been a frequent pairing at Boston Ballet) were a tour de force in a dazzling Black Swan pas de deux that they literally fizzed through. Daniil Simkin reappeared in Alejandro Cerrudo’s Pacopepepluto and showed his impish jokey side in a solo set to Dean Martin’s cute ‘In The Chapel in The Moonlight’. The evening finished with the pas de deux from La Bayadère danced stylishly and with great technical accomplishment by Ludmilla Konovalova and Giuseppe Picone.

Jim Pritchard

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