For a very short while, Wim Vanlessen will enjoy the claim that he has performed for the Royal Ballet Flanders for more than half its existence. The company celebrates its fiftieth anniversary, later this year (it was a merger of two pre-existing ballet companies) and Vanlessen joined in 1994. So, this performance was both a celebration of exceptional long service and a farewell. His long-term dance partner, Aki Saito, had already retired – after performing the title role in Akram Khan’s Giselle – in early November, last year. Both Wim and Aki had trained at the Royal Ballet School in Antwerp, giving their whole lives as professional ballet dancers to the same company.
Rightly, the company rolled out the red carpet for this momentous occasion. Literally, since hundreds of official guests walked through the city on the longest red carpet I’ve ever seen – stretching from the Stadsschouwburg to the Toneelhuis – decked on either side with candles (rather reminiscent of a Scottish Wedding) for a sumptuous party that continued into the wee small hours. It would be wrong, however, to see this performance just in terms of a celebratory event for one dancer – no matter how very significant that was – since the whole company was showcased to impressive effect in the opening works.
First up was Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s Fall, the work that introduced him to the company after becoming artistic director, in 2015. It is a long, episodic piece that utilises most of the company (fifteen women and sixteen men) although the constant performance dynamic is the inner stage, created by walls of white cloth that continually ruffle in streams of air, playfully interacting with atmospheric shadows. The set and lighting by Fabiana Piccioli and Sander Loonen is much more than an enabler, providing a continuum of memorable visual imagery.
Arvo Pärt’s music is to choreographers what the candy cottage is to Hansel & Gretel. They can’t help but be drawn to it, particularly the ubiquitous Fratres and Spiegel im Spiegel compositions. In this case, Pärt’s sacred, melancholic music is well-matched by the complex and challenging physicality of Cherkaoui’s movement, which is all about falling, rising, rolling, lifting and anything that might be gravitational. It’s a work with many beautiful images, not least in a long, central duet, but also one that overshoots an ideal point to end.
It was refreshing to have the opportunity of seeing Martha Graham’s Chronicle, a work for women only, which premiered in 1936, at a time when the world was approaching an all-encompassing conflict. This appears to be a partial reconstruction (the original lasted an hour, this was much less) but nonetheless it appears to reference the work’s three core sections: a long opening solo by Ana Carolina Quaresma, wearing a stunning red shroud, starting on a cutaway section of a staircase; her movements stiff and robotic; followed by the seminal Steps in the Street ensemble evocation of the devastation of homelessness and exile; and the final Prelude to Action, which articulates an optimism that (in 1936) turned out to be misplaced. Chronicle was a prelude to Quaresma’s own retirement – on the following evening – and a memorable performance to boot. We just don’t see enough of Graham’s work in Europe, these days, and this ode to the sensibility and strength of women was a very good second reason to be in Antwerp on this night.
The best reason, of course, was to pay a personal tribute to a sensational dancer, after a long and distinguished career. And, it seemed fitting that Vanlessen chose Maurice Béjart’s “glove” that fits the “hand” of Maurice Ravel’s Boléro, the choreography and music being so completely entwined. It is, of course, the same work that Sylvie Guillem chose for her final bow, providing sixteen minutes of non-stop movement for the soloist, performing on a circular red table, positioned centre-stage and surrounded by another eighteen men (including a couple of extra dancers drafted into the company for this purpose). Continual rocking from heel to toe is mixed with stretching, lunging and small jumps, each movement replete with tension and glued onto the music’s steadily accumulating, repetitive insistence. The effect, in any event, is mesmerising but when coupled with the sentiment of this occasion, it was electrifying.
Boléro was initially commissioned to satisfy an idea of Ida Rubinstein, an actress who made a late entry into ballet (famed only for her brief career with the Ballets Russes, during which time she specialised in the exotic and erotic roles of Cléopâtre and Zobéide). Rubinstein danced on, by most accounts, unimpressively, into her fifties. Vanlessen (as with Saito, just a few months before) has retired at the very top of his capability; that point where the sum of experience, skill and physicality equals elite quality. The audience reaction to this sparkling performance was hugely affectionate and every second of the prolonged standing ovation was thoroughly deserved.
Like so many ballet companies, Royal Ballet Flanders has changed its repertoire significantly over the past 25 years. It is to their credit that Wim and Aki have mastered those changes, from classical and neoclassical into the diverse modern forms of the past decade or so. I suspect that they may not have chosen some of the works that they have had to perform in this fluid artistic environment but – in my limited experience – they have done so with great dignity, professionalism and uplifting artistry.
Politics and art are close bedfellows in Belgium and, inevitably, there were the usual speeches ahead of the performance. One politician ended his tribute by hoping that Vanlessen would not be a stranger to the company after his retirement. It seemed an odd comment and perhaps it was lost in translation but I couldn’t help but feel that this is truly an end of an era.