Review: Russian Ballet Icons Gala at the London Coliseum

Performance: 4 March 2012
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Thursday 8 March 2012

Daria Klimentova & Vadim Muntagirov in 'Manon'. Photo: David Makhateli

Celebrating the centenary of someone buying a house might seem an odd pretext for a major event but when the person concerned was Anna Pavlova – still, 81 years after her death, revered in the world of ballet – then any anniversary seems fair game for a party. In fact, the buying of Ivy House in North End Road, Hampstead, represented a major shift from her roots in St Petersburg to a home in London for the rest of her life (tragically short) and so this house purchase represents an all-important cipher for taking Pavlova from the Imperial Stage of the Mariinsky Theatre to become the worldwide ambassador of dance.

As befits a gala in honour of one of the biggest names in ballet, the programme was packed with superstar dancers from around the globe. Even more importantly, the material danced was an eclectic mix, including classical standards from the late nineteenth century, a sprinkle of mid-20th century neo-classicism and some ultra modern contemporary pieces, including that rarest of gala species, a world premiere. Galas always suffer from insufficient preparatory stage time, invariably with no more than a run-through in the afternoon and the Ensemble Productions team (under the artistic direction of Wayne Eagling ) merits congratulations for integrating such a complex programme without any significant hiccough. These programmes are never likely to please all the people, all of the time, but there was certainly enough variety to please all of the audience, most of the time.

Apart from the fabulous array of dancers, the most appealing aspect of the programme was the opportunity to see choreography by John Neumeier , so rarely seen in London, with extracts of two of his works: a duet from La Dame aux Camélias , danced with fiery passion by Alina Cojocaru and Alexandre Riabko and a delicious pas de deux, symbolising the emotion of a lesson given to Pavlova by Enrico Cecchetti that was danced with subtlety and precision by Ulyana Lopatkina and Marat Shemiumov . This duet effectively closed the show being superseded only by an orchestral performance of The Dying Swan – Pavlova’s signature role – while a single spotlight traced the imagined movement across the stage, in keeping with the way the work was performed immediately after her death.

A dancer who performs The Dying Swan with tear-jerking impetus is Svetlana Zakharova but here she chose to perform Cor Perdut , a crowd-pleasing, ebullient work by Nacho Duato danced to the recorded Balearic music of María del Mar Bonet , and partnered by Andrey Merkuriev . Another world-class ballerina, Lucia Lacarra (partnered by her husband, Marlon Dino ) tackled a stylish duet from Roland Petit’s La Prisonniére (extracted from his full-length ballet about Proust ). Despite a stage management glitch that momentarily delayed the start, Lacarra and Dino gave a passionate account of this dreamlike encounter; drawing upon her hyper-flexibility and neat, fast spins and his remarkable strength. I’ve not previously seen the sequence where the man runs across the stage, with partner balanced on his shoulder, performed without the security of a hand holding the woman in place.

Three modern works by living choreographers were scattered through the programme, beginning with Michele Merola’s ‘Compassione’ solo danced with fire and flair by Giuseppe Picone – dressed in a nude coloured leotard that made him look like an Antony Gormley statue brought to life; and then onto that world premiere, created by Fei Bo (the Resident Choreographer at the National Ballet of China ) for Tamara Rojo , partnering a live goldfish in a very large bowl. In a performance that I would suggest contains a certain amount of improvisation, Rojo gave a brave and soulful account of this strange psychological study of consciousness beginning and ending with strong sequences of floor-based and often distorted movement. The goldfish appeared unfazed by its debut in London’s largest theatre, swimming happily around a large oval tank. My only worry is where its next performance might be (hopefully in a more domestic environment). The final modern work was choreographed by Jessica Lang (a rising talent in the USA) with her Splendid Isolation III opening the 2nd half. This narrative-based work explains the sacrifices made by Mahler’s wife (Alma, herself a composer) in support of his own career and has become a regular touring piece for the husband-and-wife team of Irina Dvorovenko and Maxim Beloserkovsky (both Principals at American Ballet Theatre ).

The neo-classical genre was represented by Kasian Goleizovsky’s Russkya solo, an interpretation of Russian folk dance expressively danced by Lopatkina; a superb balcony scene from John Cranko’s version of Romeo & Juliet , with the exquisite doll-like, filigree delicacy of Iana Salenko against a noble, youthful Romeo played by her real-life husband, Marian Walter ; and finally the Manon bedroom pas de deux enchantingly danced by Daria Klimentová , partnered by Vadim Muntagirov. He had not previously danced the role of Des Grieux but still managed an effective and solid performance; my wish list now includes the full ballet with this pair dancing the leads.

A gala in tribute to Pavlova has to include a substantial part of the classical repertoire and around a third of the pieces came from the nineteenth century with, of course, an overwhelming flavour of Petipa and St Petersburg, where Pavlova clawed her way out of poverty and into fame. The opening grand pas de deux from Le Corsaire was danced with a fine mix of delicacy and explosion by yet another married pairing (what is it about galas and marriage?) in Anastasia Stashkevich and Viacheslav Lopatin. His huge leaps into deep pliés were eye-wateringly astonishing. Alina Somova showed an English audience why she is fast becoming one of the world’s best interpreters of romantic ballet, with its emphasis on beautiful lines, carriage and port de bras, and she was sensitively partnered by David Makhateli in the Giselle pas de deux. Evgenia Obraztsova also gave a lyrical, haunting performance in Nikiya’s sorrowful solo just prior to her death in La Bayadère ; but probably the audience’s favourite episode was the scintillating grand pas de deux from the wedding in Raymonda , which had Tamara Rojo and Sergei Polunin pushing every virtuoso button possible in this bravura tour de force. I wonder for how long Sergei can continue to dance like this without the enforced discipline of daily class but how we must hope that he does.

Finally, spare a thought for the courage of Miriam Ould-Braham who performed the White Swan pas de deux with Alessio Carbone (also of the Paris Opéra Ballet ) having not previously danced the role of Odette, in a Gala dancing alongside some of the world’s best modern-day interpreters of the White Swan. If truth be told it was a serviceable, rather than remarkable, performance of this perennial gala party piece but given that it was the most recognisable ballet for many of the audience it was rewarded by an excellent reaction.

Galas have very little holistic artistic merit (a theatrical equivalent would be to extract speeches and dialogues from great plays and run them consecutively!) and, although the link to Pavlova was emphasised by grainy film clips and photographs (both of her dancing and in the domestic context of Ivy House), it is hard to define the relevance to Pavlova of some of the pieces in this gala ( Manon? Romeo & Juliet?). However, it was a very entertaining evening which offered tremendous value for money (and, also, I hope provided some charitable benefit to the Sacred Heart organisation, which supports children with cerebral palsy in Russia).

Graham Watts

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