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Stars of the 21st Century Gala - Hearts on Fire

by Denise Sum

April 17 , 2005 -- Toronto Centre for the Arts, Toronto

This year’s gala presentation marked the 10th anniversary of the Solomon Tencer production “Stars of the 21st Century”, with the artistic directorship of Nadia Veselova-Tencer. Since their first gala, commemorating the artistic contributions of Rudolph Nureyev, this husband-wife team has been committed to bringing world-class dance performers together for galas in New York, Paris and Cannes as well as Toronto (where Veselova-Tencer teaches ballet). For just one night each year, Torontonian balletomanes have the privilege of viewing talented artists from top international companies on one stage. The experience is truly unforgettable.

“Hearts on Fire” is the fourth gala that the Tencers have brought to the Toronto Centre for the Arts, raising funds for the Koffler Centre for the Arts and the Bathurst Jewish Community Centre. The proceeds of the performance went towards the centre’s cultural programming and scholarships.

The Stars of the 21st Century is a beloved annual tradition, and I have been attending since 2002. What is wonderful about this gala is the variety of different styles and companies presented. In previous years, classical ballet has been contrasted with the fiery flamenco of Antonio Marquez and the smooth jazz of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. This year, Argentina’s Tango Metropolis stole the show.

Pilar Alvarez and Claudio Hoffmann are dancers with the Tango Pasión Company in Buenos Aires. They performed two pieces that they choreographed themselves, “Ablivion” and “Libertango”- both set to the intoxicating rhythms of Piazzolla. Hoffman has also studied Argentine folkloric dance, while Alvarez was first trained in ballet and modern dance. The result of such varied backgrounds? Traditional tango steps with a contemporary twist. Sharply executed spins and lifts are seamlessly blended into intricate floor work. In “Libertango”, Hoffmann lifted Alvarez above his head (much like in the adagio of the Black Swan pas de deux), and she is suddenly dropped and lands in his arms. Moments like this were totally unexpected, keeping the audience at the edge of their seats. The pair has a flair for the dramatic, and their intensity did not waver once during their performance.

While the Tencers vary the programming to keep things interesting, one can always rest assured that there will be a healthy portion of great ballet classics on the menu. This year, the warhorses "Giselle" and "Swan Lake" were left in the able hands on the Royal Ballet’s Ivan Putrov and the Kirov Ballet’s Daria Pavlenko.

For me, Pavlenko was the discovery of the evening. This young ballerina possesses that star quality which is often missing in today’s generation of technical whiz kids.  Don’t get me wrong, she certainly has the strength and skills to deliver in the black swan pas de deux, but beyond that, her dancing also has spirit. It is rare that one comes across a dancer with the ability to truly transport the audience to a different world. It is rarer still for a dancer to be able to do this over the span of a few minutes of an excerpt, rather than over the course of a full-length ballet! Yet this is precisely what Pavlenko did, with grace and style.

The act II pas de deuxs of "Giselle" and "Swan Lake" have become standard gala fare. After seeing these pieces repeatedly, it is all too easy for the various performances to blur together. But Pavlenko’s interpretations are far from run of the mill. She knows how to stand out without being flashy. Physically, she is strong woman - not a frail-looking waif. Yet she really became Giselle, embodying the Willis ghost-like fragility and otherworldliness. From the soft flow of her port de bras to the weightlessness of her pointe work, she is utterly captivating.

In the second half of the evening, Pavlenko transformed herself completely in her portrayal of the seductive Odile. She exuded confidence and commanded the stage effortlessly. She held the audience, as well as Siegfried in the palm of her hand.

I felt that Pavlenko was a little too tall for Putrov. Combined with the fact that she dances “big” while his style is more reserved, the pair seemed out of proportion. The supported pirouettes in the Black Swan pas de deux were slower than what we are used to seeing, but this is probably due to a limited amount of rehearsal time, since the couple does not usually dance together. The partnering was safe, and lacked some of the excitement that that the tango couple had. Nonetheless, Putrov made a strong impression during his solos. His pure classical line and tidy batterie brought elegance and finesse to his dancing while the soaring height of his jumps was awe-inspiring.

The other ballets performed were considerably more contemporary. Another inter-company pairing, Eleonora Abbagnato of the Paris Opera Ballet and Gaël Lambiotte of the Dutch National Ballet, performed “Nuages” by Jiri Kylian and “The Man I Love” pas de deux from Balanchine’s “Who Cares?” The fair Abbagnato is a pleasure to watch for the purity of her line and the elegant poise of her upper body. Lambiotte shares a similar temperament.  The two are well-suited to one another. Together, their performance of Kylian’s pas de deux (set to a beautiful Debussy score) was lyrical and evocative. The pair was less at ease in the glitzy “Who Cares?” Both dancers brought their own charm to the pas de deux but lacked the chemistry and connection to the audience necessary to bring it to life.

Complexions Contemporary Ballet Inc.’s Sandra Brown and Desmond Richardson presented the most contemporary style. They performed a duet, “Ave”, which accented flowing adagio steps with sharp angular movements. The atmospheric lighting created stunning shadows, especially during Brown’s extended balance in a deep plié in second position en pointe.

Canada was aptly represented by the youthful and energetic rising star, Guillaume Côté, from the National Ballet. He appeared in a solo choreographed by James Kudelka called "The End", set to a Brahms symphony. The piece itself feels a bit awkward.  The swelling climaxes of the music simply cannot be matched by a single dancer. The symphony’s grandeur seems to call for a group dance. But Côté certainly does as good a job as anyone else could do with such a demanding solo full of continuous jumps and changes of direction.

The other Canadian performers that evening were Anik Bissonnette and Mario Radacovsky of Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montreal. They danced a piece that Radacovsky choreographed, entitled “Inspiration” and Jiri Kylian’s “Petite Mort”, both set to the music of Mozart. Both gave polished performances.

In terms of audience favour, the stars of the evening were Munich Ballet’s Lucia Lacarra and Cyril Pierre. The couple has a close relationship with “Stars of the 21st Century”, performing in every Toronto gala so far. They were scheduled to dance Roland Petit’s “Carmen” (which I really would have liked to see them perform), but instead opted for Gerald Arpino’s sensual and animalistic “Light Rain”. The pas de deux is a perfect venue to showcase Lacarra’s outrageous flexibility. It is one of those things that you have to see to believe.

I saw her last year and thought I remembered her remarkable plastique, yet when she came out on stage, my jaw dropped as if it was the first time seeing her do that 6 o’clock developé! I’m not sure if it is possible to be too flexible in ballet. Lacarra seems to give evidence otherwise. The pas de deux, striking as it was, looked more like acrobatics than ballet. I preferred the couple in Roland Petit’s “La Prisonniere” which highlighted Pierre’s fine tuned partnering skills and Lacarra’s dramatic ability.

With an exciting mix of classical ballets and more contemporary styles, the “Stars of the 21st Century” gala has become a highlight of Toronto’s dance calendar and one hopes that this tradition will continue for many years to come.


Edited by Staff.

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