English National Ballet has chosen a clever triple of bill of piece from different eras to celebrate the life and work of Rudolf Nureyev, who danced in and choreographed for the company, back when it was the London Festival Ballet.
The evening begins with Petrushka, a signature role of Vaslav Nijinsky (who created the part) and Nureyev. These are, naturally, big shoes (and mittens) to fill, and Fabian Reimair didn’t quite rise to the challenge. His puppet Petrushka was a bit of a neurotic wet blanket, desperate for the Ballerina’s love, but there was no sense of underlying melancholy to his performance. In Petrushka’s compartment scene, all the running and tapping seemed a little directionless. That said, his brief moment of ecstasy – when the Ballerina accidentally entered his space – was surprisingly heartbreaking.
Nancy Osbaldeston made a cute and springy Ballerina and was pleasingly bouncy in her pointe work. She had great comic timing – someone should let her do Coppélia. Shevelle Dynott plays the Moor, never a big part and one which with its ‘exotic’ costuming, swaggering steps and coconut-playing in place of, well, actual dancing, feels rather problematic. At least there was no blacking up.
Petrushka is a short ballet interspersed with multiple scene changes and crowd scenes; without all of this, the story is a brief one, and one that really relies on a charismatic lead to bring it to life. The corps did their best while battling with an absurd selection of headwear: giraffe heads, swan heads, moppy wigs. What remains, though, is Stravinsky’s splendid music, conveying the magic of the story much better than Fokine’s limited choreography.
Representing the later period of Nureyev’s life is Song of a Wayfarer, a dance created for him and Paolo Bortoluzzi by Maurice Béjart in 1971. The piece is also representative of the role Nureyev played in elevating the status of the male dancer – it’s a pas de deux with no sign of tutus or pointe shoes.
Set to Mahler, and sung mournfully by Nicholas Lester, it tells of a traveller going from place to place, with nowhere to call home. This must have resonated with Nureyev, as a dancer who travelled from company to company and country to country, let alone having defected from his homeland. And perhaps it said something to the ENB wunderkind Vadim Muntagirov too. Light as a feather, his arabesques seemed to extend forever and perfectly captured the sense of yearning. Next to the long-limbed Muntagirov, the “fate” character by Esteban Berlanga looked a little lacklustre, which was unfortunate.
It’s a beautiful tribute to a life that had its ups and downs – and I thought the joyful part was much more spirited, which probably says something about the stage at which Muntagirov and Berlanga are in their careers and lives compared with Nureyev when he danced that role. And perhaps it is also why, at the end, when Muntagirov was led by Berlanga into the darkness with a lingering look back, it didn’t feel as bittersweet as it might have done.
The evening ended, in a way, back where it all began, with the kind of big, exquisite, classical ballet that screams imperial Russia. As legend has it, after his defection to the West, Nureyev staged Raymonda entirely from memory, perhaps showing just how big a part the Russian classics still played in his life.
It’s a less well-known piece in the mainstream compared with Swan Lake and its ilk, but the opening Hungarian dance will be familiar to any who have seen the Tchaikovsky classics, having also been originally choreographed by Petipa. But people don’t go to see Raymonda for the character dancing, the final act is a glorious homage to Russian imperial ballet.
Daria Klimentová was, quite simply, divine. In her variation, the audience was putty in her hands from her opening clap. Her relevés and turns were perfectly judged and confident, and she managed to make the whole thing look incredibly sexy with just a glance or tilt of head. Supporting her was Muntagirov, whose ability to launch himself through the air while appearing effortless with absolute clarity in his steps ensures he currently has no match in the company.
ENB is admirable in their willingness to take a chance on the younger dancers. And many rose to the occasion with aplomb. Osbaldeston was particularly wonderful in the second variation. Her balance was impeccable – anyone who saw her Kitri would know this is her forte. Expect even bigger roles for this young English dancer. Meanwhile, the tiny Crystal Acosta wowed the audience with a powerful variation, while Ksenia Ovsyanick, in a smaller role, was radiant and a joy to watch.
The leading ladies in Raymonda Act III were all matched with lower-rank male dancers, most of whom were still in the corps. They did a decent job of supporting the females, but their inexperience was apparent when left to their own devices – the series of untidy tours en l’air was disappointing.
ENB has been in the news a lot lately after luring in Alina Cojocaru – this makes the female principal line-up at the company very impressive indeed. All of a sudden its male ranks, aside from Muntagirov, are looking a bit weak. Let’s hope Tamara Rojo has some tricks up her sleeves on this front.