Gala Les Étoiles with Valentine Colasante and Paul Marque (Paris Opera Ballet); Tiler Peck and Roman Mejia (New York City Ballet); Sergio Bernal (formerly National Ballet of Spain); Silvia Azzoni, Alexandre Riabko and Alessandro Frola (Hamburg Ballet John Neumeier); Maia Makhateli (Het Nationale Ballet, Amsterdam); Bakhtiyar Adamzhan (Astana Opera Ballet); Tatiana Melnik (Hungarian National Ballet).
Galas. Eyeroll. Well, the packed houses in Bologna (at the Comunale Nouveau, built to house the Teatro Comunale during its mid-18th century theatre's renovations) demonstrated the popularity of the format. Galas were often the solution to dance programming after the end of the first lockdown, and I have seen a fair number since the summer of 2020, often eyerolling my way through, but here I had a great time – quality casting and clever programming made the difference.
Les Étoiles is a successful series of galas created by producer Daniele Cipriani. There are several Les Étoiles performances annually in Rome, and now other major Italian theatres are making it a regular event too – this was Bologna's second year. Unsurprisingly, Swan Lake was part of the line up, however Cipriani presented it in an interesting way, starting with the Paris Opera Ballet's Paul Marque dancing Rudolf Nureyev's Act One adage. From his opening first arabesque, simple but textbook perfect, I was won over. It was beautifully danced and led into the Act Four white swan pas de deux with his POB partner Valentine Colasante who danced with understated command and wistful detachment, showing long-limbed elegant lines. Then came the ‘black swan' pas de deux with Maia Makhateli (Dutch National Ballet) and Alessandro Frola (Hamburg Ballet), who were maybe not a natural pairing but both oozed personality and Makhateli – her large perfidious eyes flashing around the auditorium – was wily in her every move, easily manipulating her ingenuous Siegfried, danced by 22-year-old Frola.
Husband and wife couple Silvia Azzoni and Alexandre Riabko from Hamburg Ballet are specialists in the John Neumeier repertoire as Neumeier has headed the company in Hamburg since 1973 and has been their director since they left the School of the Hamburg Ballet. For Azzoni this means three decades working alongside Neumeier as, astonishingly, she will be 50 later this year, yet is fresh faced and vital on stage, and her Ukrainian husband, who is five years her junior, is also in excellent form. They fit together like pieces of a puzzle, and there is not a moment when they are not thoroughly engaged with what they are dancing – there is intention in every move. They opened the programme with a duet from Neumeier's Sylvia to Delibes' music, and then were joined by Frola for an excerpt from Neumeier's Bernstein Dances, including a piece to the hugely affecting Simple Song from Bernstein's MASS.
New York City Ballet's Tiler Peck and Roman Mejia wooed the audience with Christopher Wheeldon's This Bitter Earth, danced to Max Richter's re-elaboration of the Dinah Washington classic. It's more of a statement than a song, rendered into a haunting mantra with Richter's gently pulsating overlay. Watching two youthful dancers moving to the words “Today you're young/Too soon, you're old” brought a lump to my throat. Peck and Mejia were intense and make a fine couple. Such a contrast then with George Balanchine's Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux, thrillingly whipped along by Paolo Paroni conducting the theatre's orchestra. Peck's variation was astoundingly fast, yet she found moments for phrasing to let it breathe, and of course used those sly Balanchine skirt flicks, which no one does better than a City Ballet dancer. [She has posted the variation on Instagram.] She is extraordinary, with the dynamism of her lower body combined with the softness of her arms and wrists, and her slow-motion descending leg is pure poetry. Épaulement – so often left behind in the dressing room – is something that Balanchine dancers preserve and what charm, cheek, and irony it can add to a step. And of course, Peck has a megawatt personality that is the cherry on the cake.
While Peck needs no introduction, Mejia – the son of dancer parents – has just been promoted to the rank of principal dancer at NYCB. But he's certainly one to watch. He's a strong dancer with powerful jumps, though not brash, even in the work's flashier moments. And during the applause he showed a modest grin that indicated both surprise and satisfaction.
A staple of these Italian galas is Sergio Bernal who mixes classical technique with traditional Spanish dance styles. In Bologna he danced two solos, both to his own choreography. The two pieces are part of the A Night with Sergio Bernal show that has been touring since 2019, when he left his position as principal dancer with the National Ballet of Spain to form his own company. Covid lockdowns put the brakes on the project, but now there is a long series of dates lined up in Italy and abroad. He performed part of Orgía to the music of Joaquín Turina, a piece that slowly grows in strength with incrementing light, and bolder dance positions, with lots of Iberian attitude.
His second piece was choreographed to Ravel's Bolero that, of course, similarly starts lowkey and grows. However it seemed as though he could have easily continued on dancing when the piece ended. As the music thrusts towards its final frenzy, I missed the sense of total fatigue and collapse that is seen in Maurice Béjart's version, though Bernal's choreography was undoubtedly effective and he brought his inner, knowing strength to each step.
Aside from the black swan pas de deux, two other gala goodies were on the programme. The Diana and Actaeon pas de deux with Tatiana Melnik (Hungarian National Ballet) and Bakhtiyar Adamzhan (Astana Opera Ballet) opened the second part. Adamzhan is the type of dancer that brings the house down with his showy turns and jumps (as he also did in the Don Quixote pas de deux that closed the gala), but it did little for me. Melnik on the other hand is an outwardly delicate dancer with an easy grand jeté, great aplomb, and she lends graceful ease to everything she does.
Adamzhan danced the Don Quixote pdd with Maia Makhateli who shone with her customary charismatic bravura and wowed with her party trick of her never-ending balances. Few equal her in this role.
Valentine Colasante and Paul Marque were a classy act in Balanchine's Diamonds pas de deux – ten minutes of aloof control and regal dignity. This may not have had the public stamping its feet but oh, how satisfying. Looking down the programme notes, the costume designers included several from the world of fashion: Valentino for This Bitter Earth; Roberto Capucci for the black swan and Bolero; and Giorgio Armani for Bernstein Dances. For Diamonds, Colasante and Marque were wearing the Christian Lacroix costumes from the Paris Opera Ballet production.
Leaving the theatre, an eccentrically decked out elderly woman said to her companion, “I should lend her some of my diamonds!” She had some of the biggest chunks of cut glass around her neck and wrists that I've ever seen. Perhaps not…
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.