It was a heartwarming experience to attend the opening performance of the new dance season at Sadler’s Wells, a gala which presented the National Ballet of Ukraine for the first time in the UK alongside four Ukrainian born principals and soloists currently dancing in other companies around the world. Joining them were some of The Royal Ballet and English National Ballet’s top dancers. Produced by Olga Danylyuk and Ivan Putrov, it was part of the celebrations to mark the 30th anniversary of Ukraine’s renewed independence. Given that Ukraine has a long history of producing top dancers (Vaslav Nijinsky, Serge Lifar, Leonid Sarafanov and Svetlana Zakharova spring instantly to mind), the visit seems rather overdue. Especially exciting, was to sit in a packed auditorium for the first time in many months, with a sense that this was a new beginning, reminiscent of pre-pandemic full-houses.
Putrov, born in Kyiv and proud of his Ukrainian heritage, is no stranger to producing galas. His Men in Motion series has been popular over the years. He was supposed to be dancing himself but was unfortunately thwarted by injury. His indisposition gave The Royal Ballet’s First Artist, Leo Dixon the opportunity to step into new roles.
The first half was the world premiere of Ludovic Ondiviela’s System A/I. The piece was originally created as a duet for Putrov and Matthew Ball for Men in Motion, but has expanded to a corps de ballet and four lead roles. The subject matter explores the possibilities opened up by advancing Artificial Intelligence and in this situation, the relationship between a robot owned by humans. Briefly, Yuliia Moskalenko appears to run some sort of outlet where you can purchase robots that have been built to resemble and act like human beings. A (human) couple, Mayara Magri and Dixon come in to check out the ‘models’ and Magri takes a shine to the robotic Matthew Ball. He’s then wrapped up in paper and delivered to them. Please note: Matthew Ball robots, have the potential to become a bestseller this Christmas. The first half of the piece was a little bit too arm-centric for my taste, hard to know where to focus, but the duets of the second half were excellent. Ball, Magri, Dixon and Moskalenko were scintillating and it was clear that the Ukrainians were relishing the opportunity to have Ondiviela create something especially for them. A/I, with striking sets and costumes by Anna Ipatieva and a good all round cast, nevertheless came to a rather abrupt end, like an unfinished sentence.
The second half comprised ten rather more standard gala excerpts beginning with the unforgiving Grand Pas Classique by Victor Gsovsky. The always-excellent Magri was ably partnered by Denys Cherevychko (first soloist with the Vienna State Opera Ballet), but they may have benefited from more rehearsal time. Cherevychko looked much more at home in his suave solo from van Manen’s Five Tangos. Any slight tentativeness shown in the Cigarette Solo from Lifar’s Suite en blanc, danced by Natalia de Froberville (Toulouse Ballet du Capitole), had truly evaporated by the time she came to Diana & Acteon, paired with English National Ballet’s Francesco Gabriele Frola. Both dancers were on top form and gave a riveting account of this explosive pas de deux.
Ball and Dixon joined Olesia Shaytanova (Lithuanian National Ballet) in the famous pas de trois from Le Corsaire. All three delivered this showcase with aplomb – special plaudits should go to Dixon who was not on familiar territory. The Dying Swan followed, with Christine Shevchenko (American Ballet Theatre), and though she was competent, the real pathos of this solo did not translate across the footlights. She too looked much happier in the Don Quixote Suite, partnered by a smouldering César Corrales. The anticipated fireworks did not disappoint.
It was good to see former Royal Ballet soloist Fernando Montaño return to a London stage, this time partnering Anna Muromtseva in the Shades pas de deux from La Bayadère. There was a little bit of first-night nerves in evidence, but had this not been a single performance, the tension would surely have diffused at subsequent showings.
Two of the many highlights of the evening were danced solely by National Ballet of Ukraine. Moskalenko and Volodymyr Kutuzov were absolutely charming in Vakhtang Vronsky’s lyrical Forest Song. She, in particular, has a beautiful stage presence and a certain fragility which is very appealing. The other highlight was Gopak from Taras Bulba, usually a solo but on this occasion delivered by three men, Daniil Silkin, Vladislav Bosenko and Maksym Bilokrynytskyi. An abundance of panache, some spectacular split jetés, buoyant, energetic personalities combined with a bit of humorous one-upmanship, made this a joy to behold. Let us hope the company will return to the UK before long.