Review: Carlos Acosta and Guest Artists at London Coliseum

Performance: 22-25 July 2009
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Monday 27 July 2009

Interviewed by Andrew Marr recently, the ballet superstar Carlos Acosta revealed that he may not dance big classical roles for much longer. His ambition to run his own company in Cuba is also no secret. So we can view these regular “Acosta + friends” gigs as part of an iterative rehearsal for the great career move to come.

On this evidence, he’s doing well as a company director-in waiting. Acosta sticks with the motifs that work – here, he repeats the opening and closing segments of dancers arriving and leaving their studio – and ditches those that don’t. Most essentially, his eye for putting a programme together and staffing the dance roster is acquiring a deft directorial skill. He is joined by nine dancers from five world-class companies to deliver a well-balanced evening of dance; mixing intimate pas de deux and moments of quiet, emotional intensity with some daring virtuoso thrills. The late withdrawal of the Bolshoi ballerina, Nina Kaptsova, was quickly overcome by the insertion of two short but bravura ‘Spartacus’ solos for Acosta, which although roughly hacked out of their context were nevertheless, unquestionably, crowd-pleasing.

I thoroughly disliked Michael Descombey’sDying Swan’ (also danced by Acosta). There are, of course, male swans a-plenty but the only man I want to see dancing to Saint-Saens’ iconic music must be a “Troc” (one of the all-male Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, whose repertoire includes an obligatory send-up of the choking swan). Descombey’s one good idea is to front-end the famous music with a howling gale, thus setting the circumstantial context for the swan’s demise. But both the choreography and the attitude of the dancer himself appear entirely bereft of any clear sense of a swan – dying or otherwise – and with little apparent integration of movement with music.

By contrast, the steps in John Neumeier’s pas de deux from ‘Othello’ are precisely engineered into Arvo Pärt’s gloriously emotional ‘Spiegel im Spiegel’; the duet between Florencia Chienellato and Amilcar Moret of Hamburg Ballet reflecting the duopoly of piano and violin in Pärt’s haunting score. The result is a dance that is surprisingly still but full of movement, both intimate and erotic and yet always dignified. It made me realise once again just how starved we are of Nuemeier’s luminous choreography in London. The Hamburg dancers also performed together later in the programme in a fairly forgettable duet which did little to enhance Purcell’sAh Belinda’ aria from Dido & Aeneas. Not their fault, but why bother, I wondered.

Othello’ was followed by ‘Canto Vital’, a work that might be subtitled ‘Après midi des quatre fauns’ since it illustrates an allegorical afternoon of simple manly pleasures for its quartet of mythological, super-dancing beings. The entrance jeté of Moret soared so high that it seemed unbeatable in the virtuoso stakes and yet Acosta, Stephen McRae (allegedly not long recovered from a dose of swine flu) and Ariel Vargas all had plenty of opportunities to bring the best of their technique and athleticism to the fore. A man sitting to the right of me couldn’t contain his whooping and hollering, applauding and wolf-whistling every successive leap and spin. It was certainly a rousing way to end the first act.

I could have done without the pared-down gala fodder, best exemplified by a cautious rendition of Ashton’sRhapsody’ (although interesting in that it hallmarks McRae and Roberta Marquez as a likely Royal Ballet pairing for the future) and Ivan Tenorio’s teeth-flashing ‘Ritmicas‘. On the plus side, Rambert’s Miguel Altunaga was sensational in dancing his own intense choreography for the solo ‘Memoria’ and when partnering the irresistible Pieter Symonds in Kim Brandstrup’sDK60’; as were ENB‘s Becoña Cao and Vargas in both Ben Stevenson’s studio-based love trilogy ‘Three Preludes’ and in Derek Deane’s sumptuous duet to ‘Summertime’ from his recent ‘Strictly Gershwin’ extravaganza.

The show concluded on a suitably high note with a reprisal of Georges Garcia’sMajisimo’ which had featured in the first Acosta + Guests programme back in 2006. This brought out all of the dancers (minus Symonds and Altunaga) for a gloriously Hispanic, rousing finale to music from Massenet’s Le Cid. It sent the crowd into over-drive, bringing many of them to their feet (you could easily spot the seated critics!) for a splendid ovation to finish.

Carlos Acosta has made his name in the UK and around the world but Cuba is his life. Only one of these 12 works had no Cuban association (’Rhapsody‘ – although it is a piece often danced by Acosta) and half the company were Cuban-born and trained; supported by a handful of other great dancers from around the world. Excepting a few duds, it was generally an eclectic and enjoyable programme that speaks volumes for the Acosta to come.

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