Matthew Paluch sees the Ballet Icons Gala 2023 in London
|Ballet Icons Gala
|19 February 2023
“Ballet Average Dancers” doesn't have quite the same ring as “Ballet Icons”, hence the specific title choice one assumes. But with iconic comes major weight and expectation – the pressure. The Ballet Icons gala format returned to London's Coliseum on 19 February for one night only with the to-be-expected star-dancer billing. It was a little overwhelming looking at the lengthy list of those (supposedly) involved on the website pre-show… how long are we going to be in there for?
But there were a lot of no shows: Jason Kittelberger, David Motta Soares (Berlin State Ballet), Vadim Muntagirov, Cesar Corrales, Natalia Osipova (Royal Ballet), Li Yuecong and Han Yufei (Beijing Dance Theatre), which seems unfair considering the website says “cast”, not “casting subject to alteration”. Imagine if you've spent vast amounts of money and your Icon is being iconic somewhere else. Harsh, and verging on false advertising. If I was a ‘no show' I'd have my agent/lawyer involved… or perhaps it's the other way around? Either way, it isn't a great starting point.
Galas really are like buffets: you starve yourself, then you gorge, then you feel sick. Sick of seeing fouettés!
Let's start with the good stuff, which mostly featured William Bracewell. He did Marius Petipa's Coppélia with Marianela Nuñez. Nuñez is her absolute best in demi-character roles, technically and in her characterisation. And it's wonderful to see her in a longer skirt – for choreographic reasons. She had a blast throughout with impeccable work, obviously. And when ballerinas are performing Aurora (currently in season at The Royal Ballet) there is an extra strength in their already steely techniques, and this was evident. Bracewell as Franz was full of sass and mischief, with the same, literally faultless execution he brings to everything. He, without a doubt, has the most beautiful pirouette position in the biz, and all topped off with an endless sense of suspension in relevé. The Petipa version of Coppélia is fresh and light, feeling less saturated with folk inflections.
Bracewell returned later as Oberon in Ashton's The Dream with Francesca Hayward. It was a stunning performance and so needed within the usual gala divertissement. Something steeped in history, style, and legacy. It speaks volumes about The Royal Ballet School's system of training and The Royal Ballet's repertoire heritage. This choreography lives within the dancers: the musicality, body shaping, nuance, and subtle but powerful presence. And I could watch Hayward forever – her Titania is both distracted and involved. Bracewell's Oberon is a wizard of sorts – equally playful and controlling.
Does anyone else wonder why Bracewell didn't go straight to the Opera House on graduating from the Royal Ballet School? I'm not saying anything negative about Birmingham Royal Ballet or him going there, but it seems like a very bizarre choice for Covent Garden to pass him up. But then they did the same with Muntagirov.
Yasmine Naghdi and Reece Clarke opened the evening with Kenneth MacMillan's Manon bedroom pas de deux. They look gorgeous together and danced very competently. The most exciting parts were when things went slightly awry though, and I'd go with that approach a little more. It needs risk otherwise the passionate energy doesn't fizz. Though the tempo (see below) meant that the snog went on forever. Awks.
Maia Makhateli (Dutch National Ballet) and Daniil Simkin (Berlin State Opera) performed Balanchine's Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux… or did they? Both are extraordinary dancers, but somehow the focus felt quite wrong. I know Balanchine authenticity is a hot topic, but for me there was masses missing: choreographically, stylistically, and musically. This work needs to be seen at New York City Ballet, or rehearsed with more attention to detail, and less tricks and kicks focus. Their rendition was warped.
Don Quixote (Petipa) is generally always on the gala billing, and it's overdone for me. However, Iana Salenko (Berlin State Ballet) and Dmitry Zagrebin (Royal Swedish Ballet) were very strong. Zagrebin is an ideal Basilio – pocket rocket with major power – and Salenko came alive in her solo where I think the fan helps (her and us). When in full throttle her Kitri is both demur and elegant.
Flames of Paris (Vassily Vainonen) I enjoy because I don't know it well or see it often. Evelina Godunova (Berlin State Ballet) and Julian MacKay (Bavarian State Ballet) did the number proud. Godunova ate up the vast Coliseum stage with apparent ease and MacKay is a spectacle. He's so expressive in performance and execution, and so it begs the question: why wasn't his contract renewed at San Francisco Ballet? Only Tamara Rojo knows the answer to that unfathomable one. America's loss is Germany's gain.
La Scala had a very good night with Nicoletta Manni and Timofej Andrijashenko in Roland Petit's Carmen. The work is a masterpiece in choreography: subtle yet sexy, and still exuding originality. I don't think there's anything else like it, apart from lots of weaker versions that pale in comparison. Andrijashenko brought the vibe, though lacked acute precision at times, and Manni had both the look of Carmen and the aura of a ballerina, with bags of presence. I'd suggest she needs to develop Carmen's internal, sensual torsion more though as it's currently coming across a tad positional.
Sadly, it wasn't such a good night for the Paris Opera. Dorothée Gilbert and Audric Bezard didn't quite gel in Nureyev's Cinderella. They can't be blamed exclusively though as I don't find Nureyev's choreography successful. It feels clunky, lacking overall structure and a sense of build. It categorically seems to need the original cast in order to work – Guillem bien sur. This was a bit of a shame, as I, and I'm sure many others were very eager to see Gilbert dance. Another time hopefully.
It was very interesting to see Liam Scarlett's Chopin Romance for the first time danced by Katja Khaniukova and Aitor Arrieta (English National Ballet). The sophisticated, subtle work was quenching. Scarlett was an incredibly musical choreographer, and not just in the obvious ways. He manages to unveil the (existing) space within both melody and rhythm of music, communicated through the movement and play with volume. This creative skill allows the observer to engage with the work in a more tangible way, and the dancers clearly revel in the possibilities this gives them in both execution and interpretation. Watching unseen Scarlett highlights what a product of The Royal Ballet School and Royal Ballet system he was. The movement is punctuated with MacMillan and Ashton traits throughout: partnering choices, body form, and bravery with stillness. It feels simultaneously beautiful to witness and tragic to consider what could have been. Khaniukova was a stunning communicator of the work – she knew exactly what was going on.
There was an eclectic collection of solo moments during the evening. Calvin Royal III of American Ballet Theatre performed his own creation Moonlight. Royal is a stunning dancer, so expressive in everything he does. He was living the Debussy, played beautifully by (his husband) Jacek Mysinski. It made one very eager to see more of Royal's work. When will he be invited as a Guest Artist to London one wonders.
Sergio Bernal also performed his own work Temperament. It was a Flamenco number with some big, technical ballet moments. All performed in red, knee high flamenco heeled boots. It was definitely authentic, but also a little bit Strictly Ballroom.
Giuseppe Picone shared Giuseppe Picone's Elevarsi.
Jeffrey Cirio, who sadly left English National Ballet recently to join Boston Ballet, returned to perform the role he originated in Akram Khan's Creature. I adore Cirio as a dancer, but I didn't adore Creature when it premiered. It's soon to return to Sadler's Wells, so let's see how things pan out on a second viewing. Cirio was of course brilliant; articulate and as committed as always. But I wish he'd done something else. Like Balanchine's Allegro Brilliante!
Lucía Lacarra and Matthew Golding performed Edward Liang's Borealis. It was mostly made up of angst and stretching. They did their best, but the work didn't live up to its epic suggestions.
The programme closed with Le Corsaire (Petipa/Mazilier) and more fouettés – the fourth set of the night. Margarita Fernandes and António Casalinho of Bavarian State Opera had the honour. Casalinho has been a pretty big deal in the ballet world since he won the Prix de Lausanne in 2021. His first professional contract was directly to Soloist, with premiere after premiere in Munchen, and then promotion to First Soloist (one step away from Principal) this January. I get it – he's a superb, technical dancer. There are even movement likenesses of José Manuel Carreño, which is a massive compliment. But now he needs to evolve from pyrotechnic whiz-kid, exude a little less autopilot, and transmit a lot more ‘in the moment' style of performance. Fernandes is also a very proficient dancer, but clearly lacks an obvious sense of individual presence – she seemed to have one, fixed expression throughout. They're both so young (he's 19 and she is 17), so there's still plenty of time… just as long as they don't burn out. Too much too soon isn't always a good thing. Where does Casalinho go from here development-wise? Let's hope Laurent Hilaire does them both proud through his direction.
The English National Ballet Philharmonic under the baton of Maria Seletskaja had some bizarre tempi (often too slow) and the odd bum note, but generally sounded good. And the cymbalist was having the night of their lives – talk about crash, bang, wallop! As galas go, things ran smoothly production-wise, and the abstract, yet themed projections by Nina Kobiashvili worked well as backdrops.
Galas highlight some concerns though. At many points during the performance the content felt somewhat interchangeable where it could have been any number of dancers doing a variation of a grand pas. The gala circuit repertoire doesn't help, but the lack of obvious individualism in a group of Icons doesn't bode well. The current value system in the ballet world can perpetuate the repetition of set templates. If you don't look a certain way, or can't do the required feats, you either don't work, or you do but in the back row, rarely seen. What does this fashion risk us losing? I'm not disparaging what the stars of today can do, but I am asking the question: do we have the range and particularity of the not-too-distant past? Currently, I'd say, not really.
Notes on a gala:
Gala attendees often don't know how to behave at the theatre with phones out, chatting between themselves, and getting up to go god knows where. But the Coliseum staff's policing approach doesn't seem to be helping with the disturbance and perhaps even makes it worse! Storming down the aisles, mid-performance, and loudly whispering directives and flashing lights in the faces of the perpetrators? Maybe time for strategic brainstorming.
I've said this before, but I'll say it again: there's an arabesque emergency… and it's gone global. Very few executions seem to evolve from, or build on, projection, yet surely that's the underpinning of the movement's intention? And how ‘line' should be found and developed. What we mostly see is a posé ‘whack' with the leg, and the front arm located nowhere with zero connection to the eye focus. This specific ‘evolvement' in the danse d'école isn't doing us, or the movement concept, any favours. Arabesque is omnipresent, like an invisible, eternal laser. Dancers should simply find and embody the concept like architecture. Let's rewind and rethink. If it's not broken, don't fix it.
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 formerly on faculty at The Royal Ballet School. He completed his Masters in Ballet Studies at Roehampton University in 2011, has been a freelance writer since 2010 and currently works in the Law Sector.