The annual Les Étoiles gala in Rome invites top dancers from all over the world to give the Italian public a taste of what can be found outside Italy's borders. Rarely are Italian dancers included in the line-up, though this year there was the Sicilian Eleonora Abbagnato, though the former Paris Opéra Ballet étoile can be considered a French dancer, having spent her entire career in Paris.
Notwithstanding ever-shifting pandemic conditions, the producer Daniele Cipriani managed to bring dancers over from the United States and various parts of Europe: the UK, Spain, France, and the Netherlands.
Fumi Kaneko, the newly minted principal at The Royal Ballet in London danced the white and black swan pas de deux with Vadim Muntagirov. While she has work to do on interpreting the role(s) – she will dance it for the first time at The Royal Opera House in March – she has a magnetic stage presence, and Muntagirov once again proved that he is one of the finest danseurs nobles today. Unfortunately they were wearing specially designed costumes by designer Roberto Capucci, and while her tutus were ideal for a photoshoot their bulky structure forced them to alter some of the choreography with Muntagirov having a battle getting to her waist.
Two of American Ballet Theatre's new principal dancers – Cassandra Trenary and Calvin Royal III – danced the second act pas de deux from Giselle. They both debuted in the roles at the end of last year. Royal is calm and clean in his execution and his extremely long limbs add to his elegance. Trenary is a very promising Giselle, she is not a dancer that you understand from the outset, there is something hidden about her that slowly comes together like the pieces of a puzzle. Also, where many Giselles hardly leave the stage in their entrechat quatre series, she flies.
Royal's main piece of the evening was a male duet called Touché by Christopher Rudd. He danced it grippingly with Sergio Bernal. Rudd created the piece for American Ballet Theatre's online gala in November 2020. While there are many homoerotic duets, one that is overtly homosexual is something of a surprise. Here there is no doubt that the two protagonists are lovers and not just good buddies. They strip in front of each other, they kiss. But before the liberating moments of the final section where passion takes over, Rudd shows us the two young men's fear of revealing their sexuality – the house lights come up at one point and the dancers are stunned to find that they are being observed. There are many small reactions between the two dancers that will resonate with many gay men who have had to conceal such a central part of their being, though much of the expressed timidness in the face of intimacy is universal. Royal and Bernal were convincing actors and threw off the complexities of the often acrobatic choreography with ease. The little girl sitting next to me applauded with delight.
Bernal was magnificent in his Danza de los ojos verdes, a flamenco number which saw him with an ironic smile and twinkly eyes instead of his more usual macho posturing. Bernal also choreographed a number called Le roi danse, which apart from him having a sun headdress (designed by Capucci) and being painted gold had little to do choreographically with Louis XIV but was an audience pleaser and allowed him to strut his stuff and Bernal knows how to do that better than most.
A curiosity was a pas de deux from Spartacus with choreography by Azari Plisetsky (Maya Plisetskaya's younger brother), the version best known in Cuba, and Cuban-trained Luis Valle danced the piece together with Ana Sophia Scheller. There are many melodramatic glances offstage, it has some unusual lifts, but isn't overly showy and works well as gala fodder.
Daniil Simkin delighted with the ‘nude' solo from Alejandro Cerrudo's Pacopepepluto to Dean Martin's seductive crooning. It was impish and tongue-in-cheek and performed in the lowest of lighting conditions. A woman behind me whispered, “He's naked!”. He wasn't.
Simkin together with Maia Makhateli brought the house down with the final act pas de deux from Don Quixote. Simkin can still pull off his 540 jumps, and Makhateli showed her unbelievably static balances which looked like a series of freeze-frames. They interpreted it well too, with complicitous glances and Makhateli's big eyes darting around the auditorium.
Muntagirov had his work cut out as he also partnered Natalia Osipova in the second act pas de deux from Le Corsaire. Instead of the fouettés she whizzed around the stage in a dazzling double manège with piqué emboîté and piqué soutenu combinations. Osipova also danced Jason Kittelberger's Ashes, a dramatic solo set to the mournful Ederlezi melody from the Balkans interpreted by Nigel Kennedy and The Kroke Band. Osipova's talent to communicate directly from her heart to that of the audience is matched by few performers – it is though she is transparent and what she feels, we feel.
Eleonora Abbagnato performed Roland Petit's Le Rendez-vous with Mathieu Ganio, which is a piece that they danced for her adieux to the Paris Opera Ballet last year. There is a palpable deep connection between the two dancers and both here and in the suite from Angelin Preljocaj's Le Parc – the one with the swinging kiss pas de deux – they were sophisticated and elegant yet very human and touching. Two very classy étoiles, worthy of the title.
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.