It was an illustrious list of names that graced the Coliseum stage for the Ballet Icons Gala 2020. With 13 pas de deux/duets on the programme it was inevitable that some fared better than others. However, the nature of the event drew a particular audience who seemed delighted with what was on offer, as well as filling the auditorium with some rather eye-catching evening wear.
With two Mariinsky dancers opening the proceedings in Grand Pas Classique, Ekaterina Kondaurova and Timur Askerov, it was a surefooted and strong start. Lovely lines and clean finishes did not quite set the stage alight but it was nevertheless a polished beginning.
The Bolshoi’s Alyona Kovalyova and Xander Parish, from the Mariinsky, glittered in the Diamonds pas de deux from Jewels. She is long-limbed and elegant with high and strong extensions. Parish was an exceedingly attentive partner but in a pas de deux which requires so much control and majesty, it also needs a strong rapport between the couple and here it felt like a slightly loose connection. Lucía Lacarra and Matthew Golding danced Edward Liang’s Finding Light with supreme lyricism. A beautiful, fluid pas de deux, this was interesting pairing. Well matched physically, they found a chemistry that made this a highlight of the evening. Following this was yet another superlative performance from The Royal Ballet’s Yasmine Naghdi and Marcelino Sambé in the second act pas de deux from Giselle. Generally, I don’t think this pas de deux sits well on a gala programme. Galas can often end up as a platform for (friendly) competition – who can do the most fouettés or the most complicated tricks. However, when you see artistry at this level, it rather leaves the fouettés at the back door. Naghdi, with gossamer fragility and ably supported by Sambé, transported us into the ghostly world of Wilis. Maia Makhateli and James Stout from Dutch National Ballet danced with a relaxed air an extended version of La Llorona pas de deux from Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s Frida. Previously created in 2016 for English National Ballet as a one act ballet, Broken Wings, Dutch National Ballet will premiere the full-length version of Frida next month and this was a welcome taster. The Bolshoi’s Maria Alexandrova and Vladislav Lantratov gave us Carmen Suite in which he stole the lion’s share of audience appreciation and the first half came to a conclusion in a fittingly spirited Don Quixote with La Scala’s gorgeous Nicoletta Manni and freelancer Julian MacKay, who delivered all the requisite fireworks.
The second half started with the first of two world premieres, Once with by Jason Kittelburger, which he danced with his fiancée, Natalia Osipova. This is the second duet he’s made following Left behind, which was part of Osipova’s Pure Dance evening at Sadler’s Wells last year. The first duet was more impactful but such is the allure of these two, we were nevertheless intrigued and touched by this ‘physical conversation, devoid of language miscommunication’ – as he describes it. Vittoria Valerio and Claudio Coviello gave a sweeping account of the duet from Anjelin Preljocaj’s Le Parc and in the second world premiere of the evening, Giuseppe Picone created an aesthetic duet for himself and Luisa Ieluzzi, though her ‘barely there’ nude coloured knickers and crop top did not move flatteringly with her body, in spite of her wonderful physique. The Sleeping Beauty, standard gala fodder, was given top treatment from Ekaterina Krysanova (also Bolshoi) though her partner, Artem Ovcharenko seemed curiously muted. Anyone looking for dazzling pirouettes and spectacular jumps need look no further than Iana Salenko and Daniil Simkin in Le Corsaire.
Not surprisingly, they brought the gala to an explosive finale, looking superb together (both currently dancing with Staatsballett Berlin) and bringing the zing of dazzling showmanship to the proceedings. However, no matter how much excitement they generated, it was the penultimate duet which I found to be the ‘best in show’. English National Ballet’s Erina Takahashi and James Streeter danced a duet from Akram Khan’s Dust. Created in 2014 to commemorate the centenary of the outbreak of the first world war, the duet expresses the trauma and effects on both the soldier and his wife, when he returns. If ever there was a case for loss of impact when taken out of context, it should have been this, yet both dancers, in a display of such committed understanding of what they were trying to portray, gave the most moving and memorable performances of the evening. Living through such unimaginable horrors, Streeter embodied the very notion of suffering, contorted and twisted with mental anguish. Takahashi instinctively endeavoured to share the burden. There were no tricks or turns – just pure, unadulterated artistry, a tangible connection between them, taking us momentarily into their painful world and leaving us with the sense that we had experienced it along with them.
In this 15th edition of the gala, which was brought to us by the founder and CEO of Ensemble Productions, Olga Balakleets, one was able to appreciate the range and depth of world class dancing everywhere. That we are able to watch them all in one night is a privilege indeed. Whilst a fair number of the audience were undoubtedly frequent ballet goers, inevitably there were a number of less interested parties. It was disappointing therefore, that in spite of clear announcements before the performance and ushers holding posters, that in between all 13 pas de deux, the ushers were required to ask multiple people to turn off their mobile phones – for the entire duration of the performance. Such highly respected stars, many of whom had travelled to the UK especially for the event, surely deserve to have our full concentration just for a couple of hours and not come second to Facebook or texts?