Ballet Icons Gala 2024 at the London Coliseum was another intriguing blend of the classics and new work

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Ballet Icons Gala 2024: Soloists, English National Ballet Philharmonic / Maria Seletskaja (conductor). London Coliseum, 17.3.2024. (JPr)

Francesca Hayward and Herman Cornejo in Like Water for Chocolate © Jack Devant

I couldn’t fail to sit down in the London Coliseum and not recall how that night (17 March) would have been the 86th birthday of the much-missed Russian émigré dancer, Rudolf Nureyev. Why? Because it was at the Coliseum I enjoyed so many ‘Nureyev and Friends’ performances in the decade he was there each year. Of course, Ballet Icons Gala used to be Russian Ballet Icons Gala and has been put on regularly since 2006 with this being the 18th such gala. Sadly, Nureyev did not seem ‘much-missed’ this year because the date was not acknowledged in anyway not even in the glossy and informative programme where there was an essay by Graham Watts, Shaping the ballet of today, where Nureyev was mentioned only for his choreography for Paris; he deserved better.

Considering many in the audience were clearly looking forward to their gala dinner when all the dancing was over it is to the credit of Olga Balakleets and others who put together the event that we saw as many as seventeen short items. These were a blend of the classics and new work, which – having begun a little after 7pm – did not end until about 10.30pm. With only one solo piece everything was a succession of duets, mostly hewn from longer works. The costumes – such as they were since several bare male torsos were on show – were appropriate to the ballets we were seeing and an attempt was made to vary what was projected at the rear of the stage; some chandeliers and drapery for the more classical pieces and often specific lighting was recreated for the contemporary ones. (Nina Kobiashvili was credited with the set and Andrew Ellis the lighting.)

Among the thirty dancers who appeared many are principals in the world’s leading ballet companies with 8 associated with The Royal Ballet and 2 with English National Ballet, whose home is the London Coliseum. The rest were often names I had read about and anyway several who were performing I had not seen live for some while, if at all.

Maybe it was me, but the gala only took off with Christopher Wheeldon’s Like Water for Chocolate which – helped a great deal by Joby Talbot’s music – is perhaps as sensuous and erotic as modern choreography can get (do dancers have the benefit of ‘intimacy coordinators’?) and was superbly danced by Francesca Hayward and Herman Cornejo. Sadly, the opener, the Grand Pas Classique, for me, did not get the performance it deserved, Fumi Kaneko looked nervous, and Vadim Muntagirov was, as is usual these days, the epitome of elegance but lacking bravura (in the daring meaning of the word). They were not helped by a rough start from the English National Ballet Philharmonic under their soon-to-be music director Maria Seletskaja when it sounded as if some of the musicians had only just returned to the pit after relaxing too much; though they got better and better as the gala proceeded (though some music of course was pre-recorded). When Muntagirov reappeared later with a rather po-faced Olga Smirnova in Diamonds from George Balanchine’s Jewels, I expected it to have, well, more sparkle.

Of course, in the Grand Pas Classique we saw the first of what can only be described as the gala’s clash of the fouettés. Next to spin around was Margarita Fernandes in La Esmeralda (inspired by Victor Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris) which – based on what I saw here – I would be intrigued to see in full. With her Bavarian State Ballet colleague António Casalinho the pyrotechnics truly began with some incredible lifts and Fernandes’s amazing contortions to kick her tambourine. Yet more fouettés from the elegant Evelina Godunova being outshone by Hungarian National Ballet’s Motomi Kiyota’s impressively assured leaping around the stage. Sadly, Skylar Brandt appeared to suffer a mishap during the infamous Black Swan fouettés but got out of it well with some pique turns in what otherwise was an impressive pairing with Herman Cornejo in the Swan Lake Act III pas de deux. Finally, it was Natalia Osipova’s turn (!) in the grand pas de deux from Don Quixote. She is not quite the explosive dancer I first saw in the role of Kitri ten years ago but the ‘don’t take your eyes off us’ showiness of her and Dutch National Ballet’s Giorgi Potskhishvili is all I really need from a ballet gala. As for Potskhishvili’s sheer charisma, power and prodigious elevation, it is what I have always hoped for from Muntagirov but never got to see.

John Cranko appears to have brought considerable comedy to his Taming of the Shrew ballet to Scarlatti’s music and Camila Bocca and Osiel Gouneo bickered appealingly in a fouetté-less pas de deux. This was another ballet I would like to see in its entirety.

Roberto Bolle and Melissa Hamilton in Caravaggio © Jack Devant

As for the contemporary works, they illustrated how without a defined narrative there are limitations with what a human body can be shown doing without it becoming repetitive callanetics or gymnastics. A number of works we saw had much the same movement just in different costumes and with different music. Not that they were without interest nor always exquisitely danced. Hans van Manen’s Two Pieces for HET (HET being the popular name for Dutch National Ballet) seemed to be about another ‘bickering couple’ who sort their relationship out over two contrasting pieces of music by Erkki-Sven Tüür and Arvo Pärt. In Sébastien Bertaud’s Renaissance Mendelsohn’s music complemented Bleuenn Battistoni and Julian Mackay who glittered in their sliver Balmain costumes, as well as in their dancing. In James Pett’s Mercy Duet (from IMAGO) for himself and Travis Clausen (with a score by Sean Pett) we seem to tenderly see an expression of their burgeoning love. For Wayne McGregor’s Qualia there was The Royal Ballet’s Yasmine Naghdi and Reece Clarke in their underwear doing the very best they could with the twists, turns, bends and stretches of the movement required from them to Robin ‘Scanner’ Rimbaud’s percussive music. There was much the same from the dancers in Ermanno Sbezzo’s angular Proximity or Closeness (Eleonora Abbagnato and Sergio Bernal) and William Forsythe’s In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated (English National Ballet’s Sangeun Lee and Gareth Haw) as we get to again admire all their bodies can do, though to very different music; the Scherzo (from Mahler’s unfinished string quartet) virtuosically played live onstage for the former, and some thumping Thom Willems for the latter.

More intriguingly there was that solo The Thinker, narcissistic it might have been, compelling it certainly was, as inspired by the Rodin sculpture Sergio Bernal fused classical dance with flamenco and there was music by Roque Baños López played in the pit and by guitarist Daniel Jurado onstage. Matthew Golding’s Remembrance (from Lost Letters) danced by himself and Lucia Lacarra was one of the UK premieres yet reminded me of other ballets I have seen with a woman not letting go of her dead lover, in this case a WWI soldier: danced against video of a field of poppies it was nevertheless extremely moving.

A final mention goes to Mauro Bigonzetti’s Caravaggio which with Like Water for Chocolate was my two highlights of the more modern works. It showed, I suspect, a muse inspiring an artist to an act of creation and Monteverdi’s music seemed entirely appropriate for this. Caravaggio was stunningly danced by Melissa Hamilton and the ageless Roberto Bolle.

Jim Pritchard

Featured Image: Giorgi Potskhishvili and Natalia Osipova in Don Quixote © Jack Devant

Grand Pas Classique
Music – Daniel Auber
Choreography – Victor Gsovsky

Fumi Kaneko and Vadim Muntagirov

Like Water for Chocolate
Music – Joby Talbot
Choreography – Christopher Wheeldon

Francesca Hayward and Herman Cornejo

La Esmeralda
Music – Cesare Pugni
Choreography – Jules Perrot (revised by Petipa, Vaganova and Gusev)

António Casalinho and Margarita Fernandes

Two Pieces for HET
Music – Erkki-Sven Tüür and Arvo Pärt
Choreography – Hans van Manen

Riho Sakamoto and Constantine Allen

The Thinker UK premiere
Music – Roque Baños López
Choreography – Sergio Bernal

Sergio Bernal

Music – Felix Mendelssohn
Choreography – Sébastien Bertaud

Bleuenn Battistoni and Julian MacKay

Mercy Duet (from IMAGO)
Music – Sean Pett
Choreography – James Pett

Travis Clausen-Knight and James Pett

Le Corsaire
Music – Adolphe Adam, Riccardo Drigo, Ludwig Minkus
Choreography – Marius Petipa and Joseph Mazilier

Evelina Godunova and Motomi Kiyota

Proximity or Closeness UK premiere
Music – Mahler (completed by Alfred Schnittke)
Choreography – Ermanno Sbezzo

Eleonora Abbagnato and Sergio Bernal

Music – Robin ‘Scanner’ Rimbaud
Choreography – Wayne McGregor

Yasmin Naghdi and Reece Clarke

Swan Lake (Black Swan pas de deux)
Music – Tchaikovsky
Choreography – Marius Petipa

Skylar Brandt and Herman Cornejo

Music – Monteverdi (arr. Bruno Moretti)
Choreography – Mauro Bigonzetti

Melissa Hamiton and Roberto Bolle

Remembrance (from Lost Letters) UK premiere
Music – Max Richter
Choreography – Matthew Golding

Lucia Lacarra and Matthew Golding

The Taming of the Shrew
Music – Domenico Scarlatti (arr. Kurt-Heinz Stolze)
Choreography – John Cranko

Camila Bocca and Osiel Gouneo

Diamonds (from Jewels)
Music – Tchaikovsky
Choreography – George Balanchine

Olga Smirnova and Vadim Muntagirov

In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated
Music – Thom Willems
Choreography – William Forsythe

Sangeun Lee and Gareth Haw

Don Quixote
Music – Ludwig Minkus
Choreography – Alexander Gorsky after Marius Petipa

Evelina Godunova (First Variation), Margarita Fernandes (Second Variation)

Natalia Osipova and Giorgi Potskhishvili

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