Ivan Putrov made interesting choices of choreographers and performers for his Against the Stream project, rather than relying on razzle-dazzle gala staples. He wanted to show how dancers from different ballet traditions come closest to the essence of works created for their companies: they should execute the choreographer’s intentions authentically – in theory, at least. The linking theme is that the choreographers were mould-breakers, hence the title of the gala.
Although ballet companies have become increasingly international in their membership, it is still true that the Paris Opera Ballet dances differently from New York City Ballet, and the Bolshoi from the Royal Ballet. The dancers are formed by their training, which is informed by their company’s repertoire. Coaches draw on their own memories, based on performance tradition and the notated ‘bible’ (if there is one) of the original production. Often, when a work is exported for a company that has never performed it before, its distinctive style tends to revert, after a while, to the dancers’ comfort zone.
Serge Lifar’s Suite en blanc, created for the Paris Opera Ballet in 1943, has been performed by a number of companies, English National Ballet (ENB) among them (last revived in 2011, after a long gap). The opening number for Against the Stream was the central pas de deux from Suite en blanc, originally performed by Lifar himself with Yvette Chauviré. It was danced by Mathieu Ganio, POB étoile, and Hannah O’Neill, première danseuse. No hyperextended positions, no whirring pirouettes: each angle of her arabesques was precisely calibrated, her leg in attitude held square instead of tilted, Russian style. It’s an elegant, courteous, neo-Romantic pas de deux, very different from the showy Flames of Paris duet by Vasili Vainonen that followed.
A slightly different version had opened the Russian Ballet Icons gala the previous Sunday, also danced by Katja Khaniukova in the role of the ballet’s heroine, Jeanne. She looked much happier with her Russian partner, Dimitry Zagrebin, than she had with the Icons’ Julian McKay, more interested in himself than in her. Zagrebin, ex-Bolshoi, is now with the Royal Swedish Ballet, Khaniukova, ex-Kiev National Ballet, has joined ENB. Both are at ease with the exuberant Soviet style, developed from the 1930s onwards by Vainonen and Agrippina Vaganova. (More later about their performance of Vaganova’s Diana and Actaeon pas de deux as the closing number of Putrov’s gala).
Next came two works by Jerome Robbins, performed by New York City Ballet dancers. Although Robbins was closely connected with NYCB, he gave a lot of his ballets to the Paris Opera Ballet, whose different approach delighted him. For Suite of Dances (performed by both companies), he had been intrigued by the dance personality of Mikhail Baryshnikov, for whom he created the solo in 1994, when Baryshnikov was part of Mark Morris’s White Oak Project.
The dances are to four Bach cello suites, played here by Urska Horvat. Joaquin de Luz, recently retired from NYCB to take over the Compania Nacional de Danza in Madrid, performed Robbins’s choreography with mercurial glee. It’s a response to Bach’s variations, drawing on a vast vocabulary of ballet steps as well as impish tumbling. The dancer approaches and retreats from the audience as if from a mirror, mocking himself as a virtuoso. It was an all-too-tantalising glimpse of delicious de Luz in his only appearance on a London stage.
Maria Kowrovski, another NYCB veteran, danced the walking-on-air pas de deux with Tyler Angle from Robbins’s ballet Concerto in G major, made in 1975 for Balanchine’s Ravel festival. The original lead couple were Suzanne Farrell and Peter Martins. The pas de deux is a dialogue full of pauses and unwindings, with low lifts until the spectacular exit, in which the enigmatic ballerina is carried off triumphantly.
The first half of the programme ended with a rarely seen revival of a trio from Kenneth MacMillan’s Images of Love, made in 1964 for the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth. A suite of nine dances was inspired by Shakespearean quotations about love: for the trio, the opening line of Sonnet 144, ‘Two loves I have of comfort and despair.’ Rudolf Nureyev was the poet torn between the Dark Lady of the sonnets (Lynn Seymour) and an angelic young man (Christopher Gable).
Two men, Putrov in the Nureyev role and Matthew Ball in the Gable one, are disrupted by the presence of a siren – Mayara Magri. She is caught between them in grappling manoeuvres before warding off the poet, excluding him as the outsider in the triangular relationship. The intricate, even tortuous choreography was a reminder of an experimental MacMillan work outshone by Frederick Ashton’s one-act ballet, The Dream, from the same Shakespeare festival.
Ashton could hardly be described as a choreographer going against the stream since he was a prime source of English ballet. By the 1970s, however, he felt the tide was turning against him. Putrov programmed two pieces from that period after the interval: Dance of the Blessed Spirits (1978) and the Awakening pas de deux from The Sleeping Beauty.
Ashton had created the Dance of the Blessed Spirits solo for Antony Dowell in 1978. Set to Gluck’s melodious music for flute (played here by Jenny Farley) from his opera Orphée et Eurydice, the solo demonstrates how lyrical a male dancer can be – very different from Soviet heroics. Putrov danced it soulfully, with great control, running out of music before the final blessing, hands together in prayer.
Tchaikovsky’s lush entr’acte music was used by Ashton for the Awakening pas de deux in a short-lived production of The Sleeping Beauty, designed by Lila di Nobili in 1968. Associated with Dowell and Antoinette Sibley, the pas de deux was tenderly danced by Magri and Ball in unfortunate costumes from the 1970 production. It represents Aurora’s waking dream of romantic love, supported by a partner in whom she places absolute trust.
Nureyev’s pas de deux from his production of Cinderella for the Paris Opera Ballet in 1986 is another kind of wish fulfilment. His Cinderella (O’Neill) dreams of becoming a Hollywood movie star and of finding love with a matinée idol (Ganio). The updated context of the ballet was indeed without precedent in the POB at the time. The original cast was Elisabeth Platel and Laurent Hilaire, with Nureyev as the good fairy film producer. O’Neill and Ganio battled a bit with the twirling stool on which she sat, but had no problems with Nureyev’s complicated choreography.
Kowrowski danced Balanchine’s Diamonds pas deux with Marcelo Gomes more extravagantly than Royal Ballet ballerinas in the glittering role. She accomplished deep lunges and penchée arabesques with the discreet support of Gomes, an adoring escort permitted to kiss her hand at the end. She is a vision of which he is barely worthy, a Balanchine goddess.
Gomes proved himself a charismatic performer in Twyla Tharp’s Sinatra Suite, partnering Kate-Lynn Robichaux from Orlando Ballet. Three songs form the suite, expanded into Nine Sinatra Songs in the 1980s for American Ballet Theatre and Tharp’s own company. Gomes, in a role originally made for Baryshnikov, remains a gentleman in spite of provocation by his high-spirited lover (originally ABT’s Elaine Kudo). He drowns his pain at being abandoned, knocking back ‘one for my baby, one more for the road’. Gomes, like de Luz, has the enviable patina of maturity that younger dancers can only hope to acquire.
The evening ended with students from English National Ballet School as a corps of maidens for the Diana and Actaeon divertissement from La Esmeralda. Putrov’s concern was to show the 1935 pas de deux as skilful choreography by Vaganova, rather than as a gala number for a scantily clad pair of stars. Khaniukova was a dashing huntress, brandishing her bow, and Zagrebin, no victim as Actaeon, was full of brio, enjoying floating his leaps and polishing off his pirouettes.
Curtain calls for the massed cast were overcome by giggles as bouquets were thrown onto the stage for dancers to retrieve and present to their partners. Putrov, still in his white tights and golden belt, looked gratified, as he should be. He had brought together remarkable performers whom we long to see again, and left us wanting more. He has found a stimulating formula for Against the Stream, which deserves to be developed even further.