The tenth Russian Icons Gala had no particular focus, unlike previous ones celebrating individual dancers, from Anna Pavlova to Andris Liepa, by way of Galina Ulanova, Maya Plisetskaya and Rudolf Nureyev, among others. This one claimed to showcase the history and influence of Russian ballet throughout the world and reinforce the friendship between Russia and Britain in trying times.
The annual galas are presented by Ensemble Productions, whose CEO is Olga Balakleets, with David Makhateli as artistic director. As the very experienced impresario Lilian Hochhauser remarks in the souvenir programme, ‘To assemble such star-studded programmes is incredibly difficult and to achieve this year after year is remarkable.’
This year, most of the female Russian stars came from the Mariinsky Ballet; five ballerinas were from British companies, including Natalia Osipova; one each came from the Paris Opera Ballet, Dutch National and Berlin State Ballet. Several of the men were no longer in their prime as dancers, having retired to become artistic directors of companies but still eager to perform: Igor Zelensky, Johan Kobborg and Kenneth Greve.
The programme contained a few excerpts from the 19th century Russian repertoire: The Sleeping Beauty, The Nutcracker and Don Quixote. Fokine got a look in with the pas de deux from Schéhérazade (if indeed the erotic duet is his choreography). The 20th century was represented by non-Russian choreographers, apart from Victor Gsovsky, whose Grand Pas Classique was created for the Paris Opera Ballet in 1949: there were three Kenneth MacMillan works and a pas de deux by Hungarian Imre Eck. Recent excerpts came from works by Benjamin Millepied, Alastair Marriott, Christopher Wheeldon, Mauro Bigonzetti and Eric Gauthier. Just how influenced all these choreographers were by the Russian/Soviet past is anyone’s guess. Russian-trained dancers, though, are well prepared to expand their experience of ‘foreign’ choreography.
The gala opened with the Act III wedding pas de deux from The Sleeping Beauty, performed by Ekaterina Osmolkina (Mariinsky) and Guiseppe Picone (ex ENB and ABT, among other companies). No fish-dives in this version – the Russians regard them as vulgar, and Osmolkina could never be vulgar. She has the grace notes of an imperial Petipa princess, delicate wrists and elegantly inclined head, with a beautifully secure technique. Picone, no longer young, was an adequate prince. The Nutcracker pas de deux in the second half, danced by Daria Klimentova and Vadim Muntagirov, was a model example of a partnership – though both dancers have now elected to go their separate ways.
Klimentova, recently retired from ENB, was a radiant Sugar Plum Fairy; Muntagirov escorted her gallantly, then revealed in his solo variations how immaculately he landed every double tour en l’air in fifth position, time after time, as though effortlessly. No other male dancer in the gala could do the same, though Kimin Kim achieved other tours de force in the Don Quixote pas de deux with Olesya Novikova that closed the programme.
Kim finished each double tour in different directions, tours à quatre, followed by pirouettes into the next tour en l’air: mightily impressive without being flashy, but his turns weren’t quite as centred as he would have wished. Novikova is a charmer, fleet of footwork with arms unusually lyrical for a Kitri. The two of them make a well-matched partnership, more refined than showier Bolshoi Don Q pairings.
Iana Salenko and Marian Walter, the married couple from the Berlin State Ballet, performed Gsovsky’s showpiece with brio. She had coloured her hair bright red, perhaps in homage to Sylvie Guillem, who was so sensational in the ballerina role when she first joined the Royal Ballet. Salenko accomplished all the tricky balances and pointework with assurance but without playful feminine allure. Walter has a soaring jump – those thighs! – and a less than perfect finish.
The dramatic MacMillan excerpts had no context, which must have been bewildering for spectators unfamiliar with the ballets. Marianela Nunez and Thiago Soares danced the ‘Farewell’ pas de deux from Winter Dreams with impassioned despair. Roberta Marquez and Federico Bonnelli made do without a balcony for their Romeo and Juliet love match. Most surprising of all was the final, fatal pas de deux from the last act of Mayerling – hardly a gala number – performed by Alina Cojocaru and Johan Kobborg, with Alexander Campbell as Bratfisch.
Kobborg, who had retired from dancing to choreograph and direct the National Romanian Ballet, made a creditable comeback as doomed Crown Prince Rudolf. He was urged on in his desire for oblivion by Cojocaru’s Vetsera, trusting him without reserve as the demented lover in the ballet, and as her partner. The tragic trajectory of Mayerling was contained in their performances, never to be seen together in full again.
Maia Makhateli and Artur Shesterikov from Dutch National Ballet gave a taster of Wheeldon’s Cinderella in advance of the company’s visit to Sadler’s Wells in July this year. Natalia Osipova and Edward Watson reprieved their pas de deux from Alastair Marriott’s Connectome, new last June. Hyper-flexible, clad in skimpy white underwear, they made more sense of their coupling than the Paris Opera Ballet pair, Dorothée Gilbert and Audric Bezard, were able to do in Benjamin Millepied’s Amoveo pas de deux. They tried solemnly to look meaningful in tortuous callisthenics to a Philip Glass vocalisation, with small Gilbert lofted above tall Bezard’s head in an uneasy swimming position.
Even worse was to come in an extract from The Swan of Tuonela, created in 1988 by Imre Eck for the Finnish National Ballet. Kenneth Greve, who now directs the Finnish company, was the burly warrior, Lemminkainen, haunted by a black-clad serpentine creature (Daria Makhateli), presumably the mystical swan. She draped herself all over him until he lowered her to the ground by one phallic leg.
Greve is the same age, 46, as Igor Zelensky, who bared his torso as the Golden Slave in Schéhérazade with Ekaterina Kondaurova (Mariinsky) as an undulating Zobeide: luscious but a waste of her talent. Ekaterina Krysanova from the Bolshoi lost her intended partner, Dmitry Gudanov, to injury, so danced a vivacious solo by Mauro Bigonzetti instead. Xander Parish (Mariinsky) was the only other soloist, in a comical number by Eric Gauthier that rather lost its point without the dismembered ending in which the frantic dancer appears to fall apart.
All in all, a mixed bag of a gala, accompanied by the versatile Orchestra of English National Ballet, conducted by Valery Ovsyanikov who gamely indulged the last-minute timings of international artistes. As well as the starry dancers, the audience of emigrés for the Russian Icons series has always been part of the spectacle, highlighted this year by Olga Balakleet’s vast crinoline skirt as she thanked the patrons and performers on stage at the end of the evening.