Review: Russian Ballet Icons: Galina Ulanova 100th Anniversary Gala at London Coliseum

Performance: 15 May 2011
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Wednesday 18 May 2011

Russian Ballet Icons: Galina Ulanova 100th anniversary gala.
Darya Kholkova & Vladislav Lantratov in 'The Red Poppy' adagio.

Galas tend to be soulless affairs, creating an evening’s programme of dance out of random snippets (invariably pas de deux) from well-known ballets. Virtuoso dancing is paramount but everything is ripped from its context and often stitched back together in a piecemeal fashion. It is the curse of the gala that can only be overcome when the theme – or indeed, the point – of the evening takes precedence over its constituent parts.

Ensemble Productions – advised by the Royal Ballet’s David Makhateli – succeeded in making this event all about Galina Ulanova, one of the greatest ballerinas the world has ever known. Ulanova was the queen of Russian Ballet with a dancing career that spanned the middle decades of the twentieth century (from her graduation in 1928 to a farewell performance in 1962); starring in both the great houses of the Mariinsky (known throughout the Soviet years as the Kirov) in St Petersburg/Leningrad and the Bolshoi in Moscow. In 1956, when Ulanova was 46 years-old, she conquered London in a series of Bolshoi performances as Juliet and Giselle that had 2,000 people queuing for a ticket (400 waited outside the opera house for 3 days). Given that she came to London so late in her dancing years it is perhaps appropriate that this gala to celebrate her 100th Anniversary comes some months after what would have been her 101st birthday.

The Coliseum was well populated by a crowd of people dressed rather more finely that is usual for a London ballet performance and the Russian language probably equalled English in the conversational hubbub. Britain’s own Prima Ballerina Assoluta, the late Dame Margot Fonteyn had a career that paralleled Ulanova’s: Fonteyn was 9 years’ younger; began her professional career 7 years’ after Ulanova; and they both danced on into their 50s. The Russian spirit for culture is steeped inside the country’s soul and deeply entwined with its political, economic and social development (as so brilliantly illustrated in *Natasha’s Dance*, Orlando Figes‘ towering book about Russian culture). In an era when no-one under 60 could have seen Ulanova dance, Russians still revere her memory; a fact that came across warmly throughout this evening. Contrast that with our remembrance of Fonteyn with recent biographies and TV films that need to address conjecture about her sex life as much as – if not more than – her ballet. I’d rather be Russian.

In fact, the spirit of the dance on show reflected the best and worst of the Russian Psyche. The worst came early on in a lacklustre, almost careless performance by Igor Zelensky in the oddly-incongruous Sinatra Variations; but thankfully the best of Russian ballet won hands-down. There were too many ‘greatest hits’ performances to record here but at the top of my list was the opening pas de deux from Les Sylphides with Ulyana Lopatkina’s extraordinary demonstration of ethereal weightlessness, a feat almost matched by a masterclass in Giselle by Svetlana Lunkina; some spectacular fireworks from Vladislav Lantratov and Ekaterina Krysanova in the pas de deux from Flames of Paris, which were almost matched by English National Ballet’s Vadim Muntagirov (ignoring a major error with the lighting cues and backdrop to continue unfazed with a powerful variation) and Daria Klimentová in Balanchine’s Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux; and then there was the crystal-clear dancing of Svetlana Zakharova in The Dying Swan (admittedly rather more like falling asleep, than evidence of a terminal decline) and in an absorbing duet from Macbeth(brilliantly danced with Andrei Uvarov).

Modern dance was represented through the pas de deux from Angelin Preljocaj’s Le Parc (danced by Nadia Saidakova and Vladimir Malakhov) and Jean-Christophe Maillot’s La Belle Pas de Deux (with stunning performances by Bernice Coppieters and Alexis Oliveira). The welcome novelty of these latter duets was further enhanced by a number of other works unfamiliar to a London audience, including Vladimir Vasiliev’s Macbeth and his revival of The Red Poppy (a ballet I’ve always wanted to see in full), plus two rarely seen snippets of Asaf Messerer’s choreography: the Orpheus and Eurydice pas de deux and the Dvo?ák Melody. This latter was danced by Olga Smirnova and Sergey Strelkov, both still students at the Vaganova Academy in St Petersburg. Smirnova displayed an elegance of adagio technique that echoed the work of Lopatkina, Evgenia Obraztsova (here dancing Lavrovsky’s Juliet alongside Makhateli’s Romeo) and Lunkina; and she clearly represents the next bearer of a torch that has been handed down through 300 years of Russian ballet, of which 30 were dominated by the divine Ulanova.

The nicest touch came in some well-judged film of Ulanova herself and an excellent voice-over in which an actor read letters and quotations from Russians that expressed the sentiments with which I began this review. Those that had the greatest impact included a daughter writing on behalf of her mother, a housewife who scrubbed her apartment clean just to watch Ulanova on TV; and a soldier who promised to return a blood-spattered, bullet-ridden photo of Ulanova, retrieved from a dead comrade in WW2. No-one loves their ballet icons more than the Russians and it was a wonderful experience to share the strength of this feeling, even if just for an evening. ??????? (thank you!).

Read Graham Watts interview with Vladimir Vasiliev the President of the Galina Ulanova Foundation

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