The Stars Align

Canada's All Star Ballet Gala: contemporary edition

1 Svetlana Lunkina and Evan McKie in White Swan pas de deux from David Dawson's “Swan Lake.” Photograph by Karolina Kuras

Canada’s All Star Ballet Gala
Svetlana Lunkina & Friends
Sony Centre for the Performing Arts, Toronto, Ontario, October 28, 2017

 

When Svetlana Lunkina, one of the world’s foremost ballerinas, arrived in Toronto fresh from the Bolshoi Ballet just a few years ago, she was greeted with enthusiasm, and a touch of curiosity. What would Toronto do with a star of her stature? At 18, Lunkina was the youngest dancer to perform the role of Giselle in the history of the Bolshoi, and her debut cast no doubt about her future. She rocketed to principal and danced for fifteen years in the great theatre.

And then suddenly, amidst turmoil at the Bolshoi, she was here, in Toronto. Shortly after her arrival she performed guest roles with the National Ballet of Canada, and then joined them as principal, dancing a wide repertoire, including her celebrated Giselle. The Russian community, the balletomane community rejoiced, but it never seemed enough. Toronto is not ordinarily a world capital of ballet, but Lunkina decided that could change, even for just a night or two a year.

The first iteration of Canada’s All Star Gala was presented in February of this year, showcasing work from the classical canon danced by gifted artists from around the world. It was a balletic treat, a confection of classicism, featuring gems rarely if ever performed in North America. A modern programme was promised, and ambitious as it seemed to present not one but two of these spectaculars within a year, the second All Star Gala took place on Saturday night at the Sony Centre.

With a focus on twenty and twenty-first century choreography, a packed house was treated to excerpts known and loved, and fresh and daring. The dancers, exceptionally talented, flew from every corner of the globe to show their diversity and range in work by Yuri Possokhov, Mauro Bigonzetti, Christopher Wheeldon, Rudolf Nureyev, Kenneth MacMillan amongst others.

I wondered what the likes of Marius Petipa, whose pas de deux from “The Sleeping Beauty” also appeared on the programme as a kind a northern star of ballet, would make of contemporary ballet. It’s a world of new possibilities, of incredible physical range, of diverging musical and aesthetic terrain, and abstract ideas. I imagine the creators of classical ballet being awestruck, shocked?, as many times I was by the athleticism on display. But, they did invent 32 fouéttes after all.

In truth, their own work must look radically different to how it was performed once upon a time. Mariinsky Ballet dancer Anastasia Lukina with her sharply winged foot reminded us that the next generation of dancers will continue to push to physical extremes. Lukina, who graduated from Saint Petersburg’s Vaganova Ballet Academy in 2015, is already a rising star in the Mariinsky, and this marked her first excursion to North America, sponsored as a Star of the Future.

A strong, fluid and expressive dancer, Lukina performed Aurora’s wedding pas de deux with Bavarian State Ballet soloist Dmitry Vyskubenko, also invited as a Star of the Future, whose soaring cabrioles drew instant applause. Lukina recovered from a slip onstage coolly, and the young stars continued on to be a highlight of the programme.

A total of 15 duets were performed, including work from National Ballet’s choreographic associate Robert Binet. Emma Hawes, looking lithe and more athletic than ever, danced an excerpt from Binet’s newest, “Children of Chaos” with fellow National Ballet dancer Christopher Gerty. Inspired by Renata Adler’s 1976 novel Speedboat, the duo clad in maroon and green stretchy bodywear by Robyn Clarke, pitched and careened, Hawes floating aloft, evoking the tug of Adler’s fragmentary prose.

Emma Hawes and Christopher Gerty in an excerpt from Robert Binet’s “Children of Chaos.” Photograph by Karolina Kuras

Eagerly awaited was Maria Kochetkova’s appearance. The American Ballet Theatre and San Francisco Ballet principal debuted in Christopher Wheeldon’s “Within the Golden Hour” dancing with Carlo Di Lanno, principal at San Francisco Ballet. Filled with softly melting poses, back arches and grab-the-ankle extensions, “Within the Golden Hour” was an excellent vehicle to show off Kochetkova’s balletic nimbleness. Di Lanno, as with most of the men dancing in the programme, was charged with partnering, a noble skill, but there is an unevenness, with the woman often the ‘showpiece’ or the mode of expression (and sometimes what is being expressed seems to be split legs) and the man the operator, almost hidden. I am not fond of this tendency in contemporary pas de deux as it makes it dull.

A revelation of the evening was Anna Ol, at least for those of us who have not seen her dancing at the Dutch National Ballet, where she is principal. She dances warm and supple, her shoulder movement bringing attention to her face, and her personality. She danced with Remi Wörtmeyer of Dutch National Ballet first in Ted Brandson’s “Replay” and then in a work by Wörtmeyer himself, “Penumbra,” set to music by Rachmaninoff. The elegant composition showed Wörtmeyer as a choreographer of sensitivity and promise, and I look forward to seeing more from him in the future.

Anna Ol and Remi Wörtmeyer in Remi Wörtmeyer’s “Penumbra.” Photograph by Karolina Kuras

Nicoletta Manni of La Scala Ballet sizzled in, well, both Mauro Bigonzetti’s shadowy “Caravaggio” and Roland Petit’s slinky “Carmen,” paired with La Scala star Timofej Andrijashenko. Petit’s quizzical choreography was here saucy and flashy rather than poetic and fatalistic, but the best moments are saved for the solo for Don José, danced with vigour and character by Andrijashenko—and why not, Petit danced the role of Don José himself when the ballet opened in 1949.

With so many moving parts, there are bound to be last minute changes to the gala lineup. Eric Underwood was unfortunately unable to attend, leaving the Royal Ballet to be represented by the excellent pair, Federico Bonelli and Lauren Cuthbertson, dancing in work by icons of the Royal Ballet repertoire, Sirs Kenneth MacMillan and Frederick Ashton. “Manon” was all sweeping drama, whereas Ashton’s rarer jewel, “Méditation from Thaïs,” in spite of turmeric coloured lighting, was sublime for its silken flow and harmonious partnering.

Svetlana Lunkina in Yuri Possokhov’s “Sagalobeli.” Photograph by Karolina Kuras

It wouldn’t be a gala without Svetlana Lunkina dancing a White Swan pas de deux, and this time it was from David Dawson’s contemporary “Swan Lake,” created for Scottish Ballet in 2016. Stripped of her feathers, she fluttered her articulate arms and was every bit the bewitched and bewitching swan to Evan McKie’s lovelorn Prince Siegfried. The pair opened with a jaw-dropping contemporary duet by British choreographer Douglas Lee, “Mask,” set to music by Vivaldi. For Lunkina, there is no angle too extreme, she proved, in lightening quick succession of contortions that were yet interesting and pleasing. Lunkina also performed with National Ballet principal Piotr Stanczyk in Yuri Possokhov’s “Sagalobeli,” originally commissioned by the Georgian National Ballet in 2007. Driven by the folk melodies, the duet meshed an old-world feeling with a lyrical sensibility, and was a favourite for me.

The gala concluded on a high note with a rousing defilé, the 17 dancers showboating for 32 counts each pair. We fielded everything from Italian fouettés to cheeky wiggles, and the crowd clapped along happily. Promised on the screen behind the triumphant dancers was the theme of the next gala, honouring Rudolf Nureyev. Coming soon …

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