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By Barbara Newman
Russian Ballet Icons Gala
May 15, 2011
Reviewed by Barbara Newman
Daria Klimentova and Vadim Muntagirov in Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux. Photo by Marc Haegeman. Courtesy London Coliseum.
When people describe the legendary ballerina Galina Ulanova as “a genius” and “magical,” they never mention technique. Nobody talks about whiplash fouettés or full-split extensions. Instead, people remember her as Juliet, flying across the stage to Friar Laurence in desperation or stepping bravely toward marriage, arm in arm with her equally doomed Romeo.
During the Bolshoi Ballet’s initial visit to England in 1956, her first and only performances here made an extraordinary impression on British ballet, inspiring young dancers who still speak of her today with reverence. The Russian Ballet Icons Gala that marked the centenary of her birth in 1910 also celebrated the elusive artistry she embodied, her dramatic presence, and the remarkable range of the repertoire she dominated.
Assembled for one evening, an international array of dancers presented excerpts from ballets closely identified with Ulanova as well as selections linked tenuously, if at all, to her illustrious career. Twyla Tharp’s Sinatra Variations (taken from her Sinatra Suite) may only have appeared because Mikhail Baryshnikov, for whom the original ballet was created, graduated from the Vaganova School, as did Ulanova. Lacking Baryshnikov’s innate charm, Igor Zelensky looked ridiculous in his attempt to dance casually, a fish out of water. But every party needs variety, and Frank Sinatra’s voice relaxed the atmosphere after a lugubrious opening from Les Sylphides.
Vladimir Vasiliev’s melodramatic Macbeth, Jean-Christophe Maillot’s lips-to-lips duet from his reinvented Sleeping Beauty, and Asaf Messerer’s vapid Orpheus and Eurydice evoked polite applause but little enthusiasm from a dressy crowd that had clearly come to admire the stars and each other. The balance of the program repaid their patience handsomely, featuring excerpts from Giselle, The Red Poppy, and Lavrovsky’s Romeo and Juliet, all of Balanchine’s Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux, and the fireworks of Diana and Acteon and Flames of Paris.
Though every gala seems to require The Dying Swan, the grotesquely studied performance by Svetlana Zakharova had little in common with Ulanova’s poignant interpretation. Trained at the Vaganova School before entering the Kirov (Maryinsky) Ballet, Zakharova has become painfully thin and mannered since joining the Bolshoi, where her unforced fluency has gradually evaporated.
However, several other dancers lit the evening with hope, hinting that Ulanova’s rare talent may yet bloom in a successor. The most likely candidates are Svetlana Lunkina from the Bolshoi, who prepared her delicate Giselle with the late Ekaterina Maximova, a protegée of Ulanova’s; the spritely Darya Khokhlova, also from the Bolshoi, who sparkled in the Golden Fingers variation from The Red Poppy; and Olga Smirnova, who will graduate from the Vaganova School this year. Already a multiple prizewinner, she proved herself a ballerina in the making, infusing Asaf Messerer’s gentle Dvořák Melody with musical lyricism.
No one expects to see any more at galas than familiar pyrotechnics. But once in a while, out of the blue, exceptional young artists like Smirnova allow us a heartening glimpse of the future.