Now in its fifteenth year, the annual London gala founded and directed by Olga Balakleets of Ensemble Productions has dropped ‘Russian’ from its title and any linking theme between its offerings. Instead, it featured 26 fine dancers from major ballet companies in pas de deux that displayed their classical training, interspersed with contemporary choreography, some brand new.
The gala started with two 20th century neo-classical duets: Victor Gsovsky’s Grand Pas Classique and the Diamonds pas de deux from Balanchine’s Jewels. Gsovsky’s 1949 pas de deux is a showcase for virtuosity, memorably danced by Sylvie Guillem in her prime with an array of different partners. Ekaterina Kondaurova from the Mariinsky Ballet, less flamboyant than Guillem, was gallantly partnered by Timur Askerov, also a Mariinsky principal. Alyona Kovalyova, who joined the Bolshoi in 2016 immediately after graduating from the Vaganova Academy, performed the mysterious leading role from Diamonds with Xander Parish, principal dancer with the Mariinsky. A young, long-limbed 5 foot 10, she made him look awkwardly out of his league as she meditated and swooned to Tchaikovsky’s Third Symphony extract. She has been fast-tracked into leading roles, since (like Suzanne Farrell, on whom Balanchine created the role) she is an exceptional talent, unmissable on stage.
Tiny Lucia Lacarra was draped around tall Matthew Golding’s shoulders in Finding Light, a duet created by Edwaard Liang for Yuan Yuan Tan of San Francisco Ballet and Taiwanese dancer Fang-yi Shen. (It was seen at Sadler’s Wells in 2013.) The woman is a supple, spatchcocked spirit, manipulated to a luscious bit of Vivaldi. As a gala number, it fares better than the Act II pas de deux from Giselle, performed out of context. Yasmine Naghdi and Marcelino Sambé of the Royal Ballet danced it well but couldn’t match memories of the Bolshoi’s Giselle (in Ratmansky’s new version), screened in cinemas only a few hours before the gala.
A duet featuring the Mexican artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Riviera followed next, choreographed by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa. The La Llorona pas de deux from Ochoa’s Broken Wings for English National Ballet had been seen in ENB’s recent Coliseum gala, performed by Tamara Rojo and Fabien Reimar. Ochoa has been commissioned by Dutch National Ballet to extend her one-act Broken Wings into a full-length ballet, Frida, to be given its premiere in Amsterdam this month. The new, extended version of the pas de deux, danced by Dutch National’s Maia Makhateli and James Stout, shows Frida as a feisty provocateur, teasing her bulky husband. She seems more dangerous than he is, though his fat suit hides a cruel heart.
Carmen, in Alberto Alonso’s Carmen Suite (1967) for the Bolshoi, is a toxic seducer, a Black Widow spider who perversely ends up being killed by her lover. Maria Alexandrova taunted Vladislav Lantratov, her real-life husband, in true bolshoi style, channelling Maia Plisetskaya, the originator of the role. Lantratov responded by agonising adoringly, never failing her in extravagant lifts.
The first half of the gala ended as it began, with a display piece – the Don Quixote pas de deux, danced by Nicoletta Manni of La Scala Ballet and Julian MacKay, ex-Mikhailovsky Ballet, now freelance. He appeared a more considerate partner than in previous Icons galas, when he was determined to seize the limelight. She nailed her fouettés to the spot, a confident Kitri.
The second half opened with the premiere of a duet, Once with, by Jason Kittelberger for himself and Natalia Osipova, his partner off stage as well as on. The title comes from his statement about performing with her: ‘Once I try it with you, everything I once did without you takes on a whole new meaning.’ To piano studies by Sibelius, the two of them veered through different moods, negotiating a relationship. He opened a dialogue to which she responded impulsively, scurrying barefoot before clinging to him. He showed that he too could be unpredictable, ending with an embrace from which she slipped away. Osipova is always compelling to watch, investing every move with personal intensity and intelligence.
The duet rang true about the complications of a relationship, which cannot be said about Guiseppe Picone’s Elégie, newly created for himself and Luis Ieluzzi of San Carlo Ballet. According to the programme note, it was inspired by the bond between two great dancers of the Bolshoi, Ekaterina Maximova and Vladimir Vasiliev, who were married for almost fifty years. The marriage was well known to be a tempestuous one, but the duet, performed in skimpy underwear, is all romantic yearning, set to Rachmaninoff piano pieces. The title and Piccone’s facial expression of distress suggest the male partner is memorialising his dead wife, who wears nothing but sparkly earrings, an unflattering sports bra and tiny pair of briefs.
In between came the concluding duet from Angelin Preljocaj’s Le Parc, made for the Paris Opera Ballet in 1994. The pas deux was danced by Vittoria Valerio and Claudio Coviello of La Scala Ballet. It’s the one with the longest kiss in ballet, as she in her nightgown twirls around his neck, feet flying. Preljocaj’s three-act ballet ends with the heroine’s surrender after earlier resistance. Steps that were earlier danced side-by-side merge in the last pas de deux as the couple hold onto each other in ecstatic abandon, incongruously set to Mozart’s music
Erina Takahashi and James Streeter performed a contemporary dance duet from Akram Khan’s one-act Dust for English National Ballet (2014). In it, a soldier traumatised by the First World War cannot accept the consolation of the woman he loved. Once twin souls, they are divided by mutual incomprehension of each other’s suffering. Movingly performed, it’s hardly gala fare.
Towards the end came familiar gala offerings from Act III of The Sleeping Beauty and Act II of Le Corsaire. Ekaterina Krysanova and Artem Ovcharenko, Bolshoi principals, executed The Sleeping Beauty Grand Pas with due formality and glamour. No fish dives, which the Russians regard as flashy, and a clear contrast in her portrayal of Aurora between delicate steps using the lower leg and well-judged high extensions. Ovcharenko was not immaculate in his solo: we have been spoilt by Vadim Muntagirov’s precision in the Royal Ballet’s latest revival of The Sleeping Beauty.
Daniil Simkin, who splits his career between American Ballet Theatre and Staatsballett Berlin, had a good gala as Ali in the Le Corsaire pas de deux, twisting and hanging in the air in embellished choreography. Iana Salenko, who has often guested with the Royal Ballet, accomplished her pirouettes with the security and serenity she possesses, in fine form eight months after giving birth.
The Corsaire pas de deux rounded off the gala on an exuberant note before all the contributors lined up on stage to take their bows. The annual Icons gala provides the chance to see dancers who don’t often appear in London, as well as principals from British companies. Credit, as ever, must go to the English National Ballet Philharmonic Orchestra and conductor Valery Ovsyanikov for accommodating a range of musical styles and tempi, and to Nina Kobiashvili for designing the decor of involving and relevant back projections.