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Stars of the 21st Century

by Denise Sum

April 25, 2004 -- Toronto Centre for the Arts, Toronto

The highly anticipated "Stars of the 21st Century" gala promises to bring top dancers from around the world to Toronto each year for a memorable evening of virtuoso dance performance. This year's gala did not disappoint, with a star-studded roster and an exciting program of familiar Petipa show pieces and contemporary choreography from the likes of Balanchine, Kudelka, Neumeier, and others. The broad display of artistry and technique from the performers was an uplifting representation of what the future of ballet has in store. Rising stars such as American Ballet Theatre's Herman Cornejo and Erica Cornejo as well as Canada's own Guillaume Côté (National Ballet of Canada) seem destined for prominence on the world stage and are certainly young talents to watch.

The Cornejo siblings opened the gala with the pas de deux of Lankendem and Gulnare from the first act of "Le Corsaire," a refreshing change from the act II pas de deux which typically appears in galas. Each step was infused with life, and their effortless dancing provided a pleasant beginning to the gala. Mr. Cornejo, a favourite from last year's show, never ceases to amaze with his dizzying turns and spinning leaps, executed with precision and flair. One might compare this technical whiz to Baryshnikov in the way he performs intricately complex steps that have not even been named!

It is evident that Mr. Cornejo is a risk-taker who holds nothing back and adores performing for an audience, and galas such as this one are perfect venues for his talent. He is not the kind of dancers that takes some time to "warm up" to the audience. Once the curtain went up, he was in character and ready to go. Ms. Cornejo shares a similar technical facility and possesses a warm on-stage personality that compliments her brother's charisma. There is a wonderful purity and openness to her movement, and her dancing is characterized by prolonged balances and grand jetés that seem to float through the air. Herman Cornejo appeared again as the Golden Idol from "La Bayadère," displaying more technical marvels.

In addition to the Cornejos, ABT was well-represented by Ethan Stiefel, a ballet star in every sense, and Gillian Murphy. Murphy danced the "My One and Only" solo from "Who Cares?" with a sassy and playful style perfectly suited to Gershwin's spirited music and Balanchine's jazzy choreography. She is an extremely strong dancer, tackling quick steps with a sharp attack and displaying clean form throughout. The excerpt from "Within You Without You," choreographed by Natalie Weir and set to the music of George Harrison, was effectively a solo for Stiefel (Murphy appears but does very little dancing). Seemingly impelled by some internal energy, he gave a nuanced and moving performance. When thinking back to it, an image of perpetual motion comes to mind, rather than static positions. The choreography is very athletic, filled with acrobatic jumps and contortions well suited to Stiefel's dynamism.

The coupled appeared together for the final number, the guaranteed show-stopping "Don Quixote" grand pas de deux. Both exude confidence, and they dance well together. Technically, they are equally matched. In the coda, Murphy tossed off a speedy series of fouettés interspersed with double pirouettes and elaborate fan movements. Perfectly centred, I'm sure she could have continued for much longer. Stiefel answered with flawless grand pirouettes à la seconde. After every few turns, he would jump, continuing the turn in the air. In terms of dramatic skill, however, Stiefel has the edge. He is an extremely engaging performer. While Murphy's pyrotechnic feats command attention, her personality does not really project past the first few rows. At times, she seems somewhat detached from the performance and the audience.

A similar disengagement marred the performances of Bolshoi dancers Dmitri Gudanov and Elena Andrienko (a replacement for Maria Alexandrova). Perhaps the lack of energy in their dancing may be explained by jet lag, last minute changes, or recovering from injuries. They were scheduled to dance a pas de deux from "La Fille du Pharaon" but performed the famous Black Swan pas de deux instead, which was a bit of a disappointment. Because the Black Swan pas de deux invariability ends up in every gala, it would have been nice to see something different -- it is so frequently seen, it can easily become very predictable. It requires technical fireworks and dramatic tension to really make an impression, however the dancers came short in both respects. The chemistry between them was nil, rendering the performance flat and unconvincing.

Gudanov, who has a very classical look, was technically proficient but little more. Andrienko was especially cold; not a vindictive Odile, but an indifferent one. She appeared stiff in the adagio, but was more secure in her solo. During the coda however, the fouettés were clearly a struggle for her as she could not prevent traveling. The pair looked more comfortable in "Le Spectre" de la Rose. Gudanov's pirouettes sequences were smooth and fluid, and his jumps demonstrated excellent ballon.

National Ballet of Canada dancers Sonia Rodriguez and Guillaume Côté performed the "Sleeping Beauty" pas de deux with ease and grace. Côté was a regal and elegant prince to Rodriguez's delicate and gracious Aurora. Together, they were a picture of pure classicism.

The evening also included a preview of James Kudelka's production of "Cinderella," which will premiere on May 8. The NBoC dancers performed the ballroom pas de deux. Kudelka has re-located the fairytale to 1930's Vienna, with art deco styling and a modern re-telling of the familiar story. The costumes looked fantastic. Cinderella is seen in a colourful cocktail dress and the prince in a slick black tuxedo. The choreography is subtle and elegant. The dancers begin apart, shy and tentative, and then come together in a lushly romantic duet. The development of their first encounter feels natural and authentic. Rodriguez is a delightful Cinderella, and Côté seems born to dance prince roles. This preview certainly whetted my interest in this new Cinderella!

Another deeply romantic pas de deux came from Neumeier's "Lady of the Camellias," danced by Munich Ballet's Lucia Lacarra (an audience favourite who has appeared in every "Stars of the 21st Century" gala in Toronto so far) and Roman Lazik. More than any other piece on the program, this pas de deux truly conveyed a story and drew the audience in. The pair danced with passion and abandon. Lazik was superb, making the complex partnering look seamless. Lacarra was heartbreaking as the tragic heroine. The Chopin score was played by pianist Simon James Murray, who provided the only live music of the evening.

In "Agon," one look at Lacarra’s hyper extended legs and plastic spine had the audience going wild. Her flexibility is absolutely unreal. In a pose where the leg is in attitude derrière, most dancers arch their back, bringing their head in contact with their pointe shoe. Lacarra goes so far that her head touches the back of her knee! She has a very extreme physique which can look awkward in some of the classics, but she uses it to her advantage in "Agon."

It was interesting to see dancers from the Victor Ullate Ballet, who like Lacarra, also trained under Ullate. Ana Noya and Eduardo Lao performed in two of Ullate's ballets, "De Triana a Sevilla" and "Sola." The former is a captivating pas de deux that is slow and hypnotic in the first half and becomes more beat-driven and forceful in the second part, which incorporates many flamenco influences. When they dance in perfect unison to the Spanish guitar music of Manolo Sanlucar, the effect is very powerful. Noya and Lao move very well together.

Ullate's choreography is both sensitive and extremely intense. "Sola" is a very different piece, almost a solo for Noya. Arvo Part's repetitive music seems to offer little inspiration. The ballet uses a chair as a prop, which seems to be sort of a recurring cliché in contemporary dance. There is also much more mime. After "De Triana a Sevilla," "Sola" was disappointing in its lack of originality.

Luckily, Desmond Richardson of Complexions Inc. delivered a memorable performance of Dwight Rhoden's "Growth." Clad in black briefs, his sculpted body incited howls and wolf-whistles from the crowd, but it was his complete control over every single muscle that held viewers in amazement. He possesses restraint and grace that are rare in a dancer of such power. When he leaps, he soars, but his landings are soft and silent. His flexibility is surprising, and every movement -- even of just the hands -- is perfectly articulate. Most importantly though, Richardson's physical feats are overlaid with a keen dramatic sensibility. The theatrical quality of the solo was further enhanced by the excellent lighting casting stark shadows.

The "Stars of the 21st Century" is Toronto's glimpse into the international ballet scene, and judging by the enthusiastic audience and sold out house, Toronto definitely liked what it saw! I certainly hope to see this gala return next spring!

The Stars of the 21st Century gala was presented by The Koffler Centre for the Arts and the Bathurst Jewish Community Centre, raising funds for cultural programming and scholarships. This marks the third year that these organizations have hosted the gala, and plans are being made for a fourth gala in 2005. [ed. 6/25/2004]

Edited by Lori Ibay

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