Vienna State Opera’s Nureyev Gala rekindles memories of the legendary dancer and choreographer

AustriaAustria Vienna State Opera’s Nureyev Gala: Dancers of Vienna State Ballet and guests, Orchestra of Vienna State Opera / Wolfgang Heinz (conductor). Broadcast live (directed by Balázs Delbó) from the Vienna State Opera, 29.6.2024. (JPr)

Harald Lander’s Études (Alexey Popov, Kiyoka Hashimoto and Davide Dato) © Ashley Taylor/Vienna State Ballet

On the website of the Vienna State Opera you could read a great deal about the legendary dancer and choreographer Rudolf Nureyev and the Nureyev Gala, first staged there in 2003 and subsequently – apart from a couple of missed years – from 2011 to today.

From 1964 to 1988 Nureyev danced 22 roles in a total of 167 performances with the company at the Vienna State Opera, at Vienna’s Volksoper and at international guest performances. In 1964, he staged his celebrated Vienna production of Swan Lake (after Petipa and Ivanov) which is still seen almost there every season. (I saw him dance in it myself in the early 1980s.) Nureyev clearly had a close affinity with Austria and it was in January 1982 when he became an Austrian citizen having famously defected from the Soviet Union in 1961.

Sadly, of course, Nureyev died prematurely in 1992 but as the website continues; ‘Nureyev was a visionary: As a dancer charismatic, emotional and intelligent, athletic and attractive like no other in the second half of the twentieth century and not only a great performer of his roles, but also a breaker of the boundaries between classical ballet and contemporary dance; as a choreographer an artist who condensed the classics through virtuosity; as a ballet director [Paris Opera Ballet] a facilitator of new works that have continued to write dance history.’ We were promised how ‘The programme of the Nureyev Gala 2024 follows in these footsteps and presents the dancers of the Vienna State Ballet in a stylistic spectrum from the nineteenth century to the present’. That it achieved splendidly in a showcase of works, some of which were very familiar to me and others I was seeing for the first time.

With little fuss or introduction, the gala began with the pas de trois from August Bournonville’s La Ventana, a one-act ballet that seems rarely performed these days and has a Spanish setting. Apparently, Nureyev danced this pas de trois in 1975 in New York. There was the typical speedy footwork and bouncy jumps we recognise from Bournonville’s La Slyphide, for instance, through there were also hints of Giselle. With the ballerinas in red and white dirndls Ioanna Avraam, Kiyoka Hashimoto and Alexey Popov danced with a pleasing vitality. Memories of that Swan Lake I saw in Vienna came flooding back with the Waltz and Pas de cinq from Nureyev’s Swan Lake Act I and later the pas de deux from Act II. Against the blueish background with the hint of a castle Masayu Kimoto was a noble prince mostly sitting at the back whilst the corps de ballet swirled away attractively in their silver-grey costumes. Then in the pas de cinq Kimoto danced with some panache, and it brought back vivid memories of seeing Nureyev perform it and – though in his mid-40s then – he still outdanced the other, undoubtedly younger, male colleagues in some typically show-offy choreography. In the moonlit scene in Act II an atmospheric cello solo ushered in guests from Paris Opera Ballet, Valentine Colasante (Odette) and Marc Moreau (Siegfried) for their pas de deux. It was tender and heartfelt though Colasante failed to sufficiently suggest Odette is an enchanted princess.

Martin Schläpfer has been ballet director and chief choreographer of the Vienna State Ballet since the 2020/21 season but has recently announced his departure and he will be replaced by the world-renowned dancer Alessandra Ferri from September 2025. Schläpfer provided the first of the contemporary choreographies with his Ramifications, an extended solo for Sonia Dvořák. In sparkly haute couture she began in silence by crossing the floor with swan-like arms then during some typically avant-garde music from Ligeti there was much crouching, balances, jerkiness, spinning and – at one point – silent screaming in a spotlight. But it was a tour de force from Dvořák and rather compelling, even though I was not sure – on a first viewing – what to make of it.

Hans van Manen’s Four Schumann Pieces is a more recognisable work and another to have been danced by Nureyev. It was created in 1975 for The Royal Ballet and principal dancer Anthony Dowell, and is clearly about relationships, conventional and unconventional, and subsequently I found out how we are supposed to ‘witness the emotional states of a man – his desires, fears and passions, which are repeatedly thwarted by a group of five couples’. Davide Dato was exceptional in the exhausting role of the leading man. However, it is in essence an ensemble piece and the dancers rose to the occasion; although van Manen’s choreography to Robert Schumann’s mostly lyrical, sometimes agitated, music became a little wearying in its hands-up nature.

Another relatively new work began the second half, Schläpfer’s Vienna Blood Waltz; the musicians of the Vienna State Opera Orchestra can, and probably do, play this music in their sleep. Here, as with all the live music, they played it superbly for experienced conductor – though new to Vienna – Wolfgang Heinz (permanent guest conductor of the Birmingham Royal Ballet since 2009). Various couples whirled away romantically in embellished black costumes glittering in the lights. What they wore was trumped by those from Chanel for Victor Gsovsky’s extremely popular Grand Pas Classique danced by Valentine Colasante and Marc Moreau. We saw the first fouettés of the gala with Colsante revealing throughout her incredible technique and vivacious personality and she was ably partnered by Moreau.

John Neumeier’s The Lady of the Camellias (Die Kameliendame) first danced by Stuttgart Ballet in 1978 was also new to me, though I have seen Frederick Ashton’s 1963 Marguerite and Armand several times. Neumerier apparently juxtaposes the one set of doomed lovers against the story of another pair, Manon Lescaut and Des Grieux, who similarly do not live happily ever after. Recently premiered by Vienna State Ballet we saw the anguished pas de deux from the final act. At first Armand appears to be dreaming and Marguerite appears already shrouded in black. Ketevan Papava and Timoor Afshar showed the tempestuous nature of their relationship during some compelling storytelling which included some passionate lovemaking. Papava’s Marguerite was clearly ailing, and it became clear this was a couple who can’t be together but can’t be apart either. Chopin’s music was almost as (melo)dramatic as the dancing but kudos to Shino Takizawa’s virtuosic piano accompaniment.

Rudolf Nureyev’s Don Quixote with Arne Vandervelde (Basil) and  Ioanna Avraam (Kitri) © Ashley Taylor/Vienna State Ballet

Another pas de deux followed after another of the frequent pauses which interrupted this gala. This time it was from Act II of Schläpfer’s 2022 reimagining of The Sleeping Beauty which I understand was not a success. What we saw was a playfully tender duet exploring the bourgeoning first love of the prince (Marcos Menha) for Aurora (Hyo-Jung Kang) with a passing nod to the original choreography. Diverting but insubstantial. More like it was the extract we saw from Nureyev’s 1966 Don Quixote; firstly, the footstamping Fandango with the spirited corps de ballet led by Ketevan Papava’s equally feisty Street Dancer and Eno Peci’s macho Espada. The bravura grand pas de deux followed with some of the best dancing of the night from the animated Ioanna Avraam’s Kitri, all wide smiles, flashing eyes and spot-on fouettés. She was effectively partnered by Arne Vandervelde’s Basil who was an efficient dancer but nothing more.

The gala concluded with the finale from Harald Lander’s Études, first danced by Copenhagen’s Royal Danish Ballet in 1948. We saw the purity of classical ballet but also essentially a workout – an intended, extended ballet class – for the large number of dancers involved set to an exuberant arrangement of Carl Czerny piano studies. It tests the stamina of all concerned as it is almost a perpetuum mobile ballet of complex patterns with the most exhilarating conclusion as the leaping dancers crisscross the stage. The elegant Kiyoka Hashimoto caught the eye as the featured tiaraed ballerina whilst the leading men, Davide Dato and Alexey Popov, provided strong support (again). With all the company dancing so stylishly it was a fitting end to the gala.

Jim Pritchard

Feature Image: Rudolf Nureyev’s Swan Lake Act I © Ashley Taylor/Vienna State Ballet


Pas de trois from La Ventana
Music – Christian Lumbye
Choreography – August Bournonville
Rehearsed by Johnny Eliasen
Dancers – Ioanna Avraam, Kiyoka Hashimoto, Alexey Popov

Waltz and Pas de cinq from Swan Lake Act I
Music – Tchaikovsky
Choreography – Rudolf Nureyev
Dancers – Masayu Kimoto (Prince Siegfried), Aleksandra Liashenko, Alice Firenze, Arne Vandervelde, Timoor Afshar, corps de ballet

Music – György Ligeti
Choreography – Martin Schläpfer
Costume – Thomas Ziegler
Lighting – Stefan Bolliger
Rehearsed by Louisa Rachedi
Dancer – Sonia Dvořák

Four Schumann Pieces
Music – Robert Schumann (arr. Martin Yates)
Choreography and Staging: Hans van Manen
Costume – Jean-Paul Vroom
Lighting – Bert Dalhuysen
Dancers – Davide Dato, Hyo-Jung Kang, Arne Vandervelde, Liudmila Konovalova, Alexey Popov, Elena Bottaro, Igor Milos, Alice Firenze, Andrey Teterin, Aleksandra Liashenko, Géraud Wielick

Vienna Blood Waltz
Music – Johann Strauss II
Choreography – Martin Schläpfer

Costume – Susanne Bisovsky
Lighting – Robert Eisenstein
Dancers – Olga Esina, Marcos Menha, Hyo-Jung Kang, Masayu Kimoto, Kiyoka Hashimoto, Géraud Wielick, Ketevan Papava, Calogero Failla, Sinthia Liz, Duccio Tariello, Ioanna Avraam, Arne Vandervelde, Elena Bottaro, Zsolt Török, Daniel Vizcayo

Grand Pas Classique
Music – Daniel François Auber
Choreography – Victor Gsovsky
Costume – Chanel
Dancers – Valentine Colasante and Marc Moreau (from Paris Opera Ballet)

Black Pas de deux from Lady of the Camellias Act III
Music – Fréderic Chopin
Choreography – John Neumeier
Piano – Shino Takizawa
Dancers – Ketevan Papava (Marguerite) and Timoor Afshar (Armand)

Pas de deux from The Sleeping Beauty Act II
Music – Tchaikovsky
Choreography – Martin Schläpfer
Csotume – Catherine Voeffray

Dancers – Hyo-Jung Kang and Marcos Menha

Fandango and Grand Pas de deux from Don Quixote Act III
Music – Ludwig Minkus
Choreography – Rudolf Nureyev
Costume- Nicholas Georgiadis
Dancers – Ketevan Papava (A Street Dancer), Eno Peci (Espada), Ioanna Avraam (Kitri), Arne Vandervelde (Basil), Corps de ballet

Pas de deux from Swan Lake Act II
Music – Tchaikovsky
Choreography – Rudolf Nureyev
Costume – Franca Squarciapino
Dancers – Valentine Colasante (Odette) and Marc Moreau (Prince Siegfried)

Finale from Etudes
Music – Carl Czerny (arr. Knudåge Riisager)
Choreography – Harald Lander
Rehearsed by Johnny Eliasen
Dancers – Kiyoka Hashimoto, Davide Dato, Alexey Popov, Corps de ballet

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