This event was described as a “Preamble” to what the organisers intend to be a much bigger festival in November 2024 when seven days of dance are planned to include events for children and dance competitions with the audiences selecting award winners in various categories. Details are still sketchy, but the ambition is loud and clear, which is to make Dubai a go-to city for dance.
For this first preamble (another is planned for January) the Mosaic organisers bought in two complete shows: firstly, Natalia Osipova's Force of Nature franchise, which is currently on an itinerant world tour – next stop, the Galli Theatre in Rimini on 18 November – although, probably for local PR reasons, her one-night-only show in Dubai was marketed under the title of Royal Ballet Star; and then the Nureyev – Legend and Legacy gala, which started life very grandly, in September 2022, at Drury Lane (the London theatre in which Nureyev first danced). The gala now seems to be under new management and the programme was both different and longer than that of fourteen months ago.
The Dubai Opera House is located in downtown Dubai with a large stage and a horseshoe auditorium for an audience of 2,000. It is an excellent venue for dance with good sight lines throughout. More needs to be done to convince the locals of the value of dance for while the orchestra stalls were reasonably full for both galas, the rest of the auditorium was largely empty. Osipova fared better than Nureyev in terms of attraction (I would guess at something like 70% to 50% attendance) which would suggest that a current Russian émigré “Royal Ballet Star” is a bigger draw than a dead Russian émigré Ballet Superstar. Chatting to audience members in the interval I was shocked at how many had never heard of Nureyev. How quickly fame fades.
Injury meant that Steven McRae was unable to perform as scheduled and Osipova's show was carried by just five dancers performing across eight pieces (only half of which were originally scheduled). The second act lasted just 28 minutes although it was more a case of never mind the width, feel the quality, since the repertoire was an interesting mix, and the dancing was of a high standard. The “Royal Ballet Star” herself shouldered much of the effort by performing in five of the eight works (including three of four in Act 2). It was a marathon personal effort to justify the “star” billing.
By contrast, the Nureyev – Legend and Legacy programme was meaty: ten long pieces (one more than at Drury Lane) danced by fourteen excellent dancers from a variety of elite companies across Europe, including The Royal Ballet, Birmingham Royal Ballet and Paris Opera Ballet. The BRB Royal Sinfonia provided live music under the baton of Gavin Sutherland but were surprisingly placed upstage with the dancers performing in front of them. One felt for poor Gavin's neck since he was constantly twisting around to follow the action! By contrast, the Force of Nature gala (I'm sticking with its proper name rather than the local alternative) was performed to recorded music.
Another important difference was that Osipova included a majority of contemporary pieces in her programme (two of which were choreographed and danced by her partner, Jason Kittelberger) whereas the Nureyev gala was like an Olympic pairs final for ballet, with ten consecutive duets, nine of which were in classical language. Greater structural and genre variety would have been welcome particularly since the audience reaction was much the strongest after the only contemporary piece: Angelin Preljocaj's Le Parc duet, which was danced with passion by Alice Renavand and Florian Magnenet of Paris Opera Ballet. The exhilaration of Le Parc rather made up for their lacklustre performance of the act 2 pas de deux from Nureyev's production of Cinderella (featuring the kitschiest Prince's costume imaginable – it would have been tacky on a jester)!
Both galas included a balcony pas de deux from Romeo and Juliet but with different choreography. Osipova danced a strong and expressive Kenneth MacMillan duet with Reece Clarke while, on the following day, Irina Burduja and Paul Irmatov represented the Czech National Ballet in an expressive and intense reading of John Cranko's choreography. It was a fascinating opportunity to compare and contrast the different emotions and movement from two of the giants of late twentieth-century choreography tackling the same subject in pas de deux created just three years apart (Cranko in 1962, MacMillan in 1965). Both were danced beautifully: with MacMillan's choreography more urgent and passionate, while Cranko's has greater delicacy and romance.
Osipova and Clarke returned to open the second act of her gala with a lyrical performance of Alexei Ratmansky's Valse Triste, a duet that was created for her to dance with David Hallberg. It's a piece that combines a poignant lyricism with the robustness of Osipova's carefree leaps into Clarke's arms, melding speed with classicism in a distinctly New York style. Osipova is understandably most often regarded as a dancer, but we should also increasingly see her as an impresario since she has commissioned so many fascinating works over the years.
Another of these is Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui's Qutb, which closed the first act: a sinuous trio commissioned by Osipova back in 2016 for her show at Sadler's Wells. It opens with Osipova, Kittelberger and Joseph Kudra so closely entwined in dim light that it's not immediately obvious how many bodies are there. Qutb is both an Arabic word that means axis or pivot and a spiritual symbol and these twin influences are clear in Cherkaoui's references to co-dependency, balance and counterbalance, conveying the idea of an energy flow between the dancers who eventually split into a duet (Osipova/Kittelberger) and a solo (Kudra). Kudra performed a quick change for Qutb because immediately prior to the trio he had worn a masked costume for a brief solo, entitled Beast by Shahar Binyamini (a choreographer new to me). My memory of it was something like Spiderman in his death throes.
Daria Pavlenko performed a stunning solo as Joan of Arc in Pawel Glukhov's La Pucelle d'Orleans. The opening statuesque tableau of Pavlenko upstage in a costume of white bandages holding a broadsword against a vivid crimson backdrop was so spectacular that it earned spontaneous audience applause even before she moved. Pavlenko then tore into her solo with a gusto worthy of the Maid of Orleans. Earlier in the programme she had partnered Kittelberger in his Left Behind duet where a dysfunctional relationship angrily unfolds in, on and around a door. I have only ever seen Osipova in the female role, and it was intriguing to absorb Pavlenko's different, and more subdued, interpretation. Osipova and Kittelberger did get back together again for Ashes, a long and emotional duet (that I recall once being just a solo for Osipova) to the sorrowful folk music of Nigel Kennedy and the Kroke band. And finally, Osipova brought the evening to a close by completing her personal marathon with a distinctive portrayal of the ubiquitous Dying Swan. One necessary but nonetheless irritating consequence of so few dancers shuffling between pieces were long, blackout pauses between the dances.
As at Drury Lane, an immediate link to Nureyev was forged on the following night by the juxtaposition of a film of Ralph Fiennes (together with Dame Monica Mason) introducing the gala followed by Oleg Ivenko and Ksenia Shevtsova performing the rarely seen pas de deux from Gayane, choreographed by Nina Anisimova for the Kirov in wartime exile, which was one of Nureyev's first principal roles. Ivenko portrayed Nureyev in The White Crow, the 2018 film directed by Fiennes (who also performed the role of Alexander Pushkin) about Nureyev's early life. To his credit, Ivenko captured something of Nureyev's charisma in his performance so that one could easily see why Fiennes chose to cast him. Ivenko is Ukrainian and Shevtsova recently left Moscow's Stanislavsky Ballet to join Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich.
Yonah Acosta, another dancer from the Munich company, partnered The Royal Ballet's Yasmine Naghdi in a pair of pas de deux, firstly from the final act of La Bayadère and then, to close the gala, from Le Corsaire. There is something in Acosta's muscular build and his spectacular elevation and ballon in the big jumps, where he seems momentarily to hang in the air, that is reminiscent of Nureyev (or, at least, of his legend) while Naghdi became the divinity of Dubai, if only for those few minutes of exquisite ballet. We are so blessed with extraordinary ballerinas at The Royal Ballet these days.
Another couple doing double (Don) duty was Alexander Trusch and Madoka Sugai, of Hamburg Ballet, first in a decent account of Nureyev's choreography for the Don Quixote grand pas de deux, and then in an excerpt from John Neumeier's Don Juan, which they performed with dramatic strength.
After a set of film clips of Nureyev vox-pox from modern-day dancers (all of whom danced at Drury Lane but none of whom danced here in Dubai, which must have caused some confusion amongst the audience), Dutch National Ballet's Jessica Xuan and Alejandro Virelles, currently without a company since leaving Staatsballett Berlin, blitzed their way through the black swan pas de deux; and Birmingham Royal Ballet's Momoko Hirata and Mathias Dingman completed a Tchaikovsky double with their stellar account of The Nutcracker grand pas. It was particularly satisfying to see these two dancers performing so sensitively and strongly in this international showcase.
So, all this was just a preamble! Eighteen capsules of dance, performed by nineteen dancers over two sultry nights at the Dubai Opera. It sets a mouth-watering prospect for the promised upscaling of the Mosaic International Dance Festival in 2024.
Note: The author's travel and accommodation expenses were sponsored by the Mosaic International Dance Festival
Graham Watts is a freelance writer and dance critic. He writes for The Spectator, Tanz, Shinshokan Dance Magazine (Japan), Ballet Magazine (Romania), BachTrack and the Hong Kong International Arts Festival and has previously written for the Sunday Express, Dancing Times, Dance Europe, DanceTabs, London Dance, the Edinburgh International Festival and Pointe magazine (USA). He has also written the biography of Daria Klimentová (The Agony and the Ecstasy) and contributed chapters about the work of Akram Khan to the Oxford Handbook of Contemporary Ballet and on Shobana Jeyasingh for the third edition of Routledge's Fifty Contemporary Choreographers.
He is Chairman of the Dance Section of The Critics' Circle and of the UK National Dance Awards and regularly lectures on dance writing and criticism at The Royal Academy of Dance, The Place and (until the war) for Balletristic in Kyiv. He was a nominee for the Dance Writing Award in the 2018 One Dance UK Awards and was appointed OBE in 2008.