Unexpected highlights grace the 2020 Ballet Icons Gala at the London Coliseum

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Ballet Icons Gala: Soloists, English National Ballet Philharmonic / Valery Ovsyanikov (conductor). London Coliseum, 26.1.2020. (JPr)

Natalia Osipova & Jason Kittelberger in Once with

Grand Pas Classique
Choreography – Victor Gsovsky
Ekaterina Kondaurova and Timur Askerov

Diamonds (from Jewels)
Choreography – George Balanchine
Alyona Kovalyova and Xander Parish

Finding Light
Choreography – Edwaard Liang
Lucía Lacarra and Matthew Golding

Choreography – Sir Peter Wright/Marius Petipa
Yasmine Naghdi and Marcelino Sambé

Choreography -Annabelle Lopez Ochoa
Maia Makhateli and James Stout

Carmen Suite
Choreography – Alberto Alonso
Maria Alexandrova and Vladislav Lantratov

Don Quixote
Choreography – Alexander Gorsky after Marius Petipa
Nicoletta Manni and Julian MacKay

Once with (world premiere)
Choreography – Jason Kittelberger
Natalia Osipova and Jason Kittelberger

Le Parc
Choreography – Angelin Preljocaj
Vittoria Valerio and Claudio Coviello

Elegie (world premiere)
Choreography – Giuseppe Picone
Luisa Ieluzzi and Giuseppe Picone

The Sleeping Beauty
Choreography – Marius Petipa
Ekaterina Krysanova and Artem Ovcharenko

Choreography – Akram Khan
Erina Takahashi and James Streeter

Le Corsaire
Choreography: Marius Petipa/Joseph Mazilier
Iana Salenko and Daniil Simkin

You can wait for some time for a Ballet Gala and then two come along a little over a week apart. They allow a company – last week it was English National Ballet celebrating their 70th anniversary (review click here) – or as here, an ad hoc assemblage of world-class dancers, to do their party pieces. Now in its fifteenth year what was formerly the Russian Ballet Icons Gala is an example of the later. As the gala’s Founder and Artistic Director Olga Balakleets explained (in the souvenir programme) the evening has evolved over the years and they ‘continue to showcase technique and virtuosity in classical repertoire, at the same time focusing on the powerful expression of contemporary works. We are including more and more world and UK premieres in our programmes. We value tradition yet look forward to new ballet which is bright, exciting and which can change our lives.’ The latter also seems a very worthy – and increasing – aim of most dance companies, apart from the most staid and traditional.

This year’s Ballet Icons Gala – as it is now known – featured thirteen duets that were a mix of classical, neoclassical and contemporary. It may be debatable, but it seemed to me a split of six – mainly warhorse – pas de deux that were all fleet-footed steps, difficult balances and bravura fouettés for the ballerinas with much leaping and spinning for the men and seven more modern works. They were either combative, deeply romantic, or elegiac; however, the choreographic language was limited with plenty of partnering, more precarious balances, gymnastic lifts and falls, sweeping floorwork, extended or split legs, as well as, entwined limbs.

Both recent galas had the same fault – overheard from those who had not bothered to buy the glossy programme – that you needed to be a considerable balletomane to recognise the works and the dancers without anything you could read. A simple projection with the title and performers briefly above – or at the rear – of the stage would suffice to keep the whole audience totally engaged in what they were seeing. Also, where the ENB’s 70th went wrong by concluding with Harold Lander’s Études that just seemed endless, the Ballet Icons Gala opened the second half with three very similar quasi-romantic duets in and out of a large pool of light on a darkened stage.

Thankfully no one excerpt overstayed its welcome. There often were glittering costumes, with the subtle lighting and projections at the back of the stage – for example, some diamonds for Diamonds (obviously) and the suggestion of a moonlit glade for Giselle – creating the appropriate atmosphere for some of what we saw. What was not in doubt was the high technical standards of the dancing on display and the excellence of the live music from the wonderful English National Ballet Philharmonic conducted on this this occasion by Valery Ovsyanikov. This remarkable ensemble shines in whatever genre of music they are required to perform.

Graham Watts’s typical informative programme essay explained: ‘We have come to see ballet as being highly influenced by Imperial Russia, but it actually originated from the court entertainments of Renaissance Italy, which in turn had evolved from the stately processions, jousting and fencing displays (often with interludes of song and poetry) enjoyed by the medieval nobility.’ To celebrate the importance of Italy and Russia on this evolution of the art of ballet there was – among a large international cast – a strong presence from their major ballet companies.

Despite so many wonderful dancers on stage I missed some of the ‘wow’ moments of this gala in previous years and ghosts of the past were ever-present. It is not to diminish the accomplishment of all concerned but I was looking for a visceral response because my emotions had been engaged. Amongst all the very efficient performances this only happened to me a few times. Totally unexpectedly the first was with Edwaard Liang’s elegiac Finding Light danced to Vivaldi’s Concerto in B Major. Here there was the perfect combination of mood created, clear storytelling and a believable rapport between the two sublime dancers Lucia Lacarra and Matthew Golding.

Even better was an outstanding extract from Dust that Akram Khan created for English National Ballet. Jocelyn Pook’s music accompanying the duet between real-life ENB couple Erina Takahashi and James Streeter was bleak and sad. She is recalling happier times, but the First World War has taken him from her. Most hauntingly we hear Sergeant Edward Dwyer’s saying ‘we’re here because we’re here’ from the marching song ‘With Our Boys at the Front’. It is ecstatic in the most tragic of ways and at the end Streeter poignantly slips away from Takahashi arms.

Finally, the very familiar Le Corsaire pas de deux (that helped make Rudolf Nureyev famous) brought the jaw-dropping moments and explosive energy that was slightly lacking elsewhere. Iana Salenko fizzed enchantingly throughout and from Daniil Simkin there were the gravity-defying leaps, tornado of turns and remarkable scissor kicks that made the audience audibly gasp.

As for the two world premieres – both with their choreographers performing in them – firstly it is always wonderful to watch Natalia Osipova and she was – by far – the most consummate dance actress in the gala and every ballet move she ever does is instinctive, however complicated it might be. Together with her partner – offstage as well as on – Jason Kittelberger, they eloquently performed Once with, a slightly argumentative, slightly erotic, and slightly quirky duet to some of Sibelius’s piano studies. The audience was soon able to make a comparison between this and the second world premiere from Giuseppe Picone who danced with Luisa Ieluzzi in Elegie.  Both were semi-naked and there was a heightened passion to Picone’s more muscular and athletic exploration of the relationship between a man and a woman, as inspired by some typically effusive Rachmaninoff piano music.

All in all, it was another impressive Ballet Icons Gala even it was a little couples-centric and an occasional different combination of dancers might have added some welcome variety to the proceedings.

Jim Pritchard

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