The annual Ballet Icons gala, now in its 14th year, aims to promote Russian culture while providing a Sunday evening’s entertainment for Russians in London and ballet-lovers hoping to catch a glimpse of the country’s finest dancers.
Inevitably, advance publicity proves misleading. Gala organisers are at the mercy of ballet companies’ requirements for their dancers, as well as performers’ illness, injuries and visa problems. This year, several of the advertised dancers were performing the same night in the final Mariinsky International Ballet Festival gala – a date that must surely have been scheduled well ahead.
Replacements were found, among them gallant Joseph Caley from English National Ballet (ENB) as a last-minute partner for the Bolshoi’s Ekaterina Krysanova. It was an unexpected pleasure to see Edward Watson, absent for ages from Royal Ballet performances through injury, on stage again, partnering Sarah Lamb instead of injured Steven McRae. British-based dancers, including Yasmine Naghdi and Marcelino Sambé, aren’t exactly Russian Icons, though it could be argued they have benefited from Russian-influenced training, like so many in Sunday’s gala.
Opening the programme were Katja Khaniukova (ex-National Ballet of Ukraine, now with ENB) and Julian MacKay (Mikhailovsky Ballet). He grabbed all the attention in the Flames of Paris pas de deux, flinging himself into virtuoso jumps with flashing teeth and hair. He is a show-off, evident in a solo later in the first half, The Cuban Nutcracker, made as a competition number. Born in Montana, trained at the Bolshoi school, young MacKay puts himself about, as is evident from his c.v.in the souvenir programme. Khaniukova was demure, ignoring him and downplaying her neat fouettés facing in different directions.
Krysanova graciously acknowledged Caley in the pas de deux from Raymonda, while preserving an aristocratic hauteur as the Hungarian heroine of Petipa’s ballet. He was courteously attentive, in notable contrast to MacKay’s manner in the Flames of Paris duet. The warmest rapport between couples came from Naghdi and Sambé in the pas de deux from Don Quixote Act III, in the Royal Ballet’s production by Carlos Acosta. They danced for each other, exchanging gleeful glances, as well as delighting the audience. Sambé seemed to hover in the air, while Naghdi flicked her fan flirtatiously. ‘See, I caught her’, signalled Sambé’s grin as they accomplished every lift with a flourish.
Another spectacular leaper is Daniil Simkin, principal dancer with American Ballet theatre and Staatsballett Berlin. He bounded in a kilt as James in August Bournonville’s La Sylphide Act II pas de deux, with Maria Kochetkova (San Francisco Ballet) as his Sylph. Simkin gave a glimpse of his talent as a contemporary dancer in a quirky solo, Pacopepepluto, so swift and dimly lit that we were little the wiser.
Ivan Vasiliev (Mikhailovsky Ballet), who will be appearing in the Bolshoi’s summer season at the Royal Opera House, is no longer the firecracker he used to be – or maybe he was tired in between commitments. He reprised his role as the Slave in Schéhérazade (as in last year’s Icons gala) with sinuous Ekaterina Krysanova as Zobéide in Andris Liepa’s version of Fokine’s pas de deux. Still much in demand as a dancer, Vasiliev is branching out into choreography for Russian companies.
Sergio Bernal (National Ballet of Spain) performed a Zapateado solo originally danced and choreographed by Antonio, the famous Spanish flamenco dancer of the last century. The heel-tapping number really need live music rather than a recording, paused to allow the dancer to perform his own rhythms. An odd choice for a Russian ballet gala, it was elegantly done by Bernal in brown boots.
Some of the modern choreography duets appeared to have little to do with the gala’s ostensible theme. Wayne McGregor’s Qualia extract (2003), from his first work for the Royal Ballet, was impressively danced by Lamb and Watson in minimalist vest and pants. Less contortionist than some of McGregor’s later work, it allows the woman to retain her dignity, as well as exploiting the man’s exceptional flexibility.
Mauro Bigonzetti’s Cantata duet, performed by Polina Semionova (Staatsballett Berlin) and Ivan Zaitcev (Mikhailovsky Ballet) is a masochistic tango, in which the woman succumbs to being hauled around by her partner, exposing her black knickers. Even more soulfully gloomy was Transparente, choreographed by Ronald Avkovic to an adaptation of fado music. Elisa Carrillo Cabrera was swirled by her husband Mikhail Kaniskin (both from Staatsballett Berlin), full skirt and long hair flying in a doom-laden duet.
David Dawson contributed an enigmatic pas de deux, On the Nature of Daylight, to romantic music by Max Richter. Anna Tsygankova and James Stout, both from Dutch National Ballet, performed flamboyant lifts and skating death spirals until she appeared dizzy, possibly with love for him. It ended with a kiss.
No such bliss for Lucia Lacarra as Carmen, in a fatal pas deux from Victor Ullate’s 2017 ballet, an update of Bizet’s opera Carmen. Her Don José was Josué Ullate, the choreographer’s son. The projected backdrop suggested they were in a bleak modern barracks or a prison. (The projected sets for the gala were well chosen by experienced set designer Nina Kobiashvili.) Lacarra, in bobbed wig and bondage leotard, resembled Roland Petit’s Carmen, his wife Zizi Jeanmaire. There were echoes of Petit’s choreography in Don José’s solo, responding furiously to Carmen’s provocations until he broke her neck. Ullate’s duet was the hit of the second half of the programme.
It was followed by a proficient Black Swan pas de deux by Misa Kuranga and Jeffrey Cirio, both from Boston Ballet, though Cirio is now with English National Ballet. Less impressive was the concluding pas de deux from La Bayadère‘s Kingdom of the Shades scene, danced by Liudmila Konovalova (Vienna State Ballet) and Giuseppe Picone, director of the San Carlo Theatre ballet company in Naples. Their dancing was laboured, bringing the gala to a somewhat dispiriting end. Valery Ovsyanikov conducted ENB’s Philharmonic Orchestra in a wide range of musical styles and tempi.