Welcome to this new collaboration between Gramilano and me, Matthew Paluch, to be known affectionately as London Calling. I'm honoured to share reviews and discussions here focusing on the London dance scene and hope you'll return to join me for subsequent outings.
There aren't many cities in the world where you can see Natalia Osipova dance on a Tuesday matinee – but London is one of them. Lucky us!
Theatre Royal Drury Lane is the venue for five performances of Nureyev Legend and Legacy. The brainchild of former Royal Ballet principal dancer Nehemiah Kish and English National Ballet principal Elena Glurjidze, the programme is a gala-type affair celebrating Rudolf Nureyev through works that came to define him, or versions of the great ballets he created himself.
Kish and Glurjidze have brought together a star cast for the event, which is a very strong way to open the London dance season 22/23. The opening night on 5 September had the additional attraction of being hosted by Dame Monica Mason and Sir Ralph Fiennes.
On the 6 September matinee that I attended, Fiennes and Mason were there again – but only on video. They both did inspirational introductory speeches about Nureyev: Fiennes highlighting his bravery in relation to his defection from Soviet Russia in order to live a fuller, truer life, and Mason confirming the impact he had on anyone he met – both personally and professionally.
The programme began with the second act entr'acte solo from Nureyev's version of The Sleeping Beauty danced by Guillaume Côté of the National Ballet of Canada. Opening any performance isn't easy, and Côté didn't seem composed. It confirms that Nureyev choreographed very much for himself, and that's difficult to re-enact. Structurally it's a little ‘once to the right and once to the left' and many moments don't feel rhythmically harmonious. But Côté did a valiant job.
Nureyev's Gayane pas de deux (after Nina Anisimova) was danced by Maia Makhateli and Oleg Ivenko (who is known for the film The White Crow where he depicted a young Nureyev on the verge of defection). Gayane has a very complex past of revisions and narrative deviations, so if it's okay we'll leave that for another time. It's a slow start, but once the choreography hits its stride the character/folk inflections and rhythms are very engaging. Makhateli is a brilliant dancer but this divertissement didn't let her shine as brightly as she normally does. Ivenko has exactly the right stage presence for the style and this came across boldly.
Then came Marius Petipa's La Bayadère third act pas de deux performed by Xander Parish (newly resident in Oslo at Norwegian National Ballet) and Iana Salenko. Bayadère out of context isn't an easy sell and this experience didn't change my opinion. The couple didn't seem to have a physical or emotional connection when dancing together, so it read cold and distant. Of course, they're both exceptional dancers in their own right, but the moment wasn't a meeting of artists.
August Bournonville's The Flower Festival in Genzano was performed by Ida Praetorius (Hamburg Ballet) and Francesco Gabriele Frola (English National Ballet and National Ballet of Canada). They were charming, connected, and infectious – like the choreography. That said, I think some purists would have questions concerning certain interpretations of the choreography and musicality. Frola is so easy to watch with such a confident technique and a natural ballon. Praetorius also danced well, but I'd ask for more bravery when it comes to the rotation/fouetté action in her solo as it's a key choreographic motif of the pas de deux and didn't feel evident enough.
Nureyev's Laurencia pas de six (after Vakhtang Chabukiani), staged by Osipova, closed the first part of the programme. She was joined by a more than capable cast, with Yuhui Choe, Cesar Corrales, Benjamin Ella, Daichi Ikarashi and Marianna Tsembenhoi, all of the Royal Ballet. Osipova is a big dancer, and consequently the Theatre Royal stage felt way too small for her, and for all the cast really. That said, she gave major Spanish sass and intensity throughout, and a grand jeté manège with cambré that saw her head and upper back virtually disappear. Ella and Ikarashi did a duet that was admirably in sync, but Corrales is the main deal. What to say? Perhaps I'll leave that until later for Le Corsaire, but as a side note for now: his hair deserves its own Instagram account. Fact.
The second part opened with Nureyev's grand pas de deux from the final act of The Sleeping Beauty (after Petipa) danced by Vadim Muntagirov and Natascha Mair. Mair seemed to enjoy the experience and danced well, with subtle confidence, but at times I wish her movement had more sense of lift and inner strength, both vital to communicate Aurora's innate sense of ease. Muntagirov should change his name to ‘Impeccable Muntagirov', as that's what he is in every way: carriage, line, partnering, and his understanding of how to use the head and eyes in relation to line. A masterclass.
Petipa's Giselle act two, pas de deux (after Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot) followed, with Francesca Hayward and William Bracewell. Wow. Wee. Hayward, at 30, already has such a rich Giselle – just imagine it with even more experience under her belt. Everything works, but the way she initiates her upper body movement and port de bras from her coccyx is the clincher for me – she literally hums. Bracewell is divine. The personification of elegance. And he brings natural drama to the choreography – no pastiche here. Giselle was the first moment that the whole theatre felt truly engaged with the performance. Magical.
Then came John Neumeier's Don Juan pas de deux with Alina Cojocaru and Alexandr Trusch. I'm unfamiliar with the ballet as, sadly, very little Neumeier is seen in the UK. After the interval, some dancers spoke of the impact Nureyev had on them in video bites and Cojocaru mentioned his presence and curiosity, two elements she inhabits as a dancer at all times. Her presence is truly something: it speaks of commitment to the art form and narrative importance. She's lucky her curiosity has taken her to Hamburg Ballet as it's clearly the right place for her at this point in her career. A true actor-dancer. Trusch seemed inspired beyond belief by his partner, and this taster makes me very eager to see the full work with the same cast… ASAP.
Petipa's Le Corsaire closed the programme with Yasmine Naghdi and Cesar Corrales. Another wow wee moment. Naghdi is a ballerina – and I don't say that lightly. Her dancing is like crystal, and with maturity she's exuding more and more gravitas. Her technique is faultless, executing three consecutive double pose pirouette en dehors without blinking, and 32 fouetté turns that would make even the toughest of coaches quietly weep. Mega work. And she seemingly revels dancing with Corrales, but who in their right mind wouldn't: his energy, dynamic and physicality is unparalleled. Audiences adore him, and he adores them: simples.
All the music was live (apart from the singer in Don Juan) and performed by the Royal Ballet Sinfonia conducted by David Briskin. There was definitely the odd bum note, and some questionable tempi, but it was a treat to have an orchestra for a gala, as it isn't always the case. However, having the band on stage as the backdrop wasn't an ideal move – visually, it worked against the dance rather than with it.
Speaking of the stage, the renovated Theatre Royal is a Georgian splendour, but it doesn't lend itself well to dance. The stage is too small, and the dancers didn't look comfortable entering and exiting. I'd also question the flooring, which didn't seem to have any give, causing even dancers with the most natural of elevations to seem troubled at times. Production-wise there were glitches with awkward segues and clumsy lighting – galas always seem to struggle with production values.
Today's dancers still seem so inspired by Nureyev. Who he was, what he did, and what he still means in the dance world. It would've been interesting to hear about all sides of the man though: how was it working with, or for him? Charismatic? No doubt. Empathetic…? They should've asked Sylvie Guillem!
He initiated many key moments in ballet's history – one being Forsythe's arrival at the Paris Opera in 1987. It seems a missed opportunity to not acknowledge and include this aspect if looking at his legacy in full. Nureyev wasn't one for mincing his words so I'm sure he'd have something, or in fact many things, to say about this gala celebration. I'd say it was largely a success and reconfirmed the extraordinary standard of dancers in the current era. Likely inspired by him.
Matthew Paluch was awarded a place at The Royal Ballet School in 1990 where he graduated in 1997. His first four years as a professional dancer were spent working with London City Ballet, Scottish Ballet, K-Ballet and English National Ballet, becoming a full-time member of ENB until leaving in 2006.
Matthew graduated from the Royal Academy of Dance, Professional Dancers' Teaching Diploma in 2007, and was fomerly on faculty at The Royal Ballet School. He completed his Masters in Ballet Studies at Roehampton University in 2011 and has been a freelance writer since 2010. He is a Trustee (2021) of the Royal Academy of Dance and works in the Law Sector.