The annual orgy of dance that kicks off the year in Rome, known as Les Étoiles, began in 2015 with an evening in the Auditorium della Conciliazione near the Vatican with its 1,700 seats. The gala has grown to occupy three days in the Auditorium Parco della Musica with its 2,800 seats. The reason for its astounding popularity is that it never disappoints. From the first outing, there were the top stars of ballet – Marianela Nuñez, Vyacheslav Lopatin, Svetlana Zakharova – with a pleasing mix of the popular and the lesser-known, classical and modern. The standard has always been maintained, if not bettered, with sixteen dancers appearing in this January's shows, and Nuñez almost always in the line-up.
The gala's artistic director, Daniele Cipriani, also enjoys pairing up dancers and dance works so that dancers are performing with new partners and in new pieces for the first time. Just one example of this was the former New York City Ballet principal, Robert Fairchild, dancing with American Ballet Theatre's Stella Abrera for the first time: they danced the pas de deux from Balanchine's Apollo. She also partnered him in a number from An American in Paris, which he knows inside out after his hit performances in New York and London, though Abrera was dancing it for the first time.
Certainly, this may lead to a little nervousness, which could be felt on the first evening, though that had disappeared on the second night where everyone seemed to have made Rome their temporary home ground.
Another way Cipriani found to inject an element of surprise, was to create some costumes especially for the occasion. The grand old man of fashion, Roberto Capucci – now 90 – designed costumes for Sergio Bernal's Zapateado and for Young Gyu Choi as the Golden Idol.
There was also the chance to see the star of Ralph Fiennes's White Crow. Oleg Ivenko, who played Nureyev in the film, was suitably sullen and slightly arrogant in life, which must have been one of Fiennes's reasons for picking Ivenko for the role, even though he humbly said that his life is divided by before and after White Crow. When asked for an example, he indicated the ballet stars he was to perform with, “Well, I'm here!” However, the 23-year-old Ukrainian is a genuine talent, not just a product of editing and close-ups.
The Bolshoi's riveting Denis Rodkin with his on and offstage partner Eleonora Sevenard were perfect in Spartacus, the company's calling card ballet, though in Swan Lake, Sevenard – a Bolshoi soloist – showed that although she has many exceptional qualities, she still has some finishing touches to add to her technique.
Sergio Bernal wowed with his Capucci cape and stunning high-waist trousers in his Zapateado to his own choreography, but a pleasant surprise was The Last Encounter, a duet with the gorgeous Miriam Mendoza from the Spanish National Ballet and with choreography by the inventive Ricardo Cue. Cue manages to both surprise and gratify with his unaffected approach to rhythm, music and passion. This can be deduced just from the concept – an Astaire and Rogers-inspired piece using music by Alberto Inglesias for Pedro Almodóvar's film Hable Con Ella (Talk to Her). A satisfying mix of the fresh and the familiar.
Elisa Badenes and Friedemann Vogel from the Stuttgart Ballet with their extraordinary bodies demonstrated the versatility of their company's repertoire with the crazy lifts of John Cranko's Legende and the hyper-extensions of Itzik Galili's Mono Lisa. Their control, musicality and occasional flirty playfulness showed off two fully-rounded artists at their peak.
Two lesser-known Cuban dancers came to represent their school and former company which lost its director Alicia Alonso a few months ago. Yanela Piñera and Luis Valle performed the Spring Waters and Don Quixote pas de deux with Cuban aplomb.
Dutch National Ballet principal Young Gyu Choi, an exciting virtuoso, performed the Le Corsaire second act pas de deux with Ana Sophia Scheller whose secure technique and vivacious personality were winning. This was one of two new partners for her as she also partnered Ivenko in Harlequinade. Needless to say that Gyu Choi brought off the Golden Idol's solo thrillingly.
Marianela Nuñez and Vadim Muntagirov were delightfully assured in The Sleeping Beauty pas de deux (oddly dancing under bluish lighting which gave the impression of a moonlit wedding) and La Bayadère (where the blue lighting was suited). They are audience favourites and they didn't disappoint with two majestic performances.
It was good to have the opportunity to see Aurélie Dupont back on stage. She performed a re-imagined version of Martha Graham's Ekstasis with great dignity, but it was a piece by Alan Lucien Øyen to Nina Simone's Stars that showcased her interpretive abilities. Let's face it, with that song, she could have just sat on a chair while the audience listened to the music and we would have finished with tears in our eyes, but adding another layer of pathos using a large palette of moves was deeply touching.
Let the stars continue to come out in January in Rome to brighten the winter evenings. It's a fixed date in my diary.
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano') about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman's Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia' column for Dancing Times magazine.