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Stars of the 21st Century Gala

by Denise Sum

May 7, 2006 -- Toronto Centre for the Arts, Toronto

The annual “Stars of the 21st Century” gala, presented by the Koffler Centre of the Arts, is one of a kind in Toronto. Held uptown at the Toronto Centre for the Arts each spring, the gala provides dance enthusiasts with a glimpse of the happenings on the international dance scene. Traditionally, galas tend to focus on the virtuosity of the dancers rather than the merit or innovation of the works performed. Fortunately, such is not the case at “Stars of the 21st Century.” Artistic Director Nadia Veselova-Tencer consistently presents a solid mix of familiar classical pieces, contemporary ballets and other dance forms. Still, this year’s program stood out from previous years in its diverse array of styles. To be able to experience Petipa, Petit, Tharp, Forsythe and others all in one night is a balletomane’s dream!

The evening began with a solo entitled “The Calm Below” choreographed by former National Ballet of Canada (NBoC) soloist Roberto Campanella. It was performed by NBoC principal Guillaume Côté, an audience favourite in Toronto. Although Côté is a familiar face for local ballet goers, the solo revealed a different side of his artistry rarely seen in his performances in NBoC’s larger productions. Not only did Côté provide the piece’s pyrotechnic moves and captivating energy, he also composed the music! The result is a piece that feels intensely personal and organic. He begins at the side of the stage, playing softly on a grand piano, before he launches into Campanella’s fluid and exciting phrases of movement. Writhing on the floor, both attracted and repelled by the presence of the piano, Côté provides a compelling picture of the internally tormented artist.

The other solo artist of the evening was the young flamenco star from Seville, Juan de Juan, who has already created his own touring company called Ballet Flamenco Juan de Juan. Juan performed two breathtaking solos, “Soleá” and “Tanguillos Flamencos,” joined by guitarist Jesus del Rosario and singer Antonio Rubio. The live music was especially refreshing in an evening of otherwise canned music. Using his castanets and heeled shoes to spectacular effect, the deep connection between music and movement was clearly expressed. George Balanchine’s famous quote, “see the music, hear the dance” instantly came to mind. The dance was not simply accompanied by music; the dance was the music. Juan’s intricate footwork was so quick that it could have easily become a blur, but his movements were so sharp and articulate that this never happened. The intensity of his performance was almost hypnotic and the audience was completely captivated. For many, this gala exposed them to a style of dance that they might not otherwise encounter. The experience was enriching and allowed one to appreciate the relationship between different dance forms.

The rest of the gala consisted of various pas de deux, but even within that form there were a variety of interpretations. Zurich Ballet’s Ilja Louwen and International Guest Arist Leo Mujic danced two pieces choreographed by Mujic himself, “Taste of the Lost Moment” and “Passacaglia.” The couple presented the most modern duets on the program with turned-in legs and flexed feet contrasting with more classical dance idioms. Mujic has danced with Frankfurter Ballet and William Forsythe’s influence can be seen in the unconventional and distorted lines of Mujic’s choreography. ”Taste of the Lost Moment” was performed bare foot to the music of Torelli with a voiceover that repeated the phrase “she hates herself… and it doesn’t work” and intermittent silences. In “Passacaglia” Louwen is en pointe. The pas de deux portrays individuals who cannot connect or hold on to one another. There is a lot of pulling and resistance in the movement, energy being created and then blocked.

Forsythe’s “In the Middle Somewhat Elevated” was brilliantly danced by Stuttgart Ballet’s Alicia Amatriain and Mikhail Kaniskin. Those who attended the most recent Erik Bruhn Competition in Toronto in 2002 will remember Amatriain’s impressive performance in this pas de deux while she was still a demi-soloist. Now a seasoned principal dancer, Amatriain’s extensions are as remarkable as ever. The extreme over-splits positions are a perfect complement to Thom Willems cutting edge music. The choreography blends sharp, angular movements with more fluid transitions and sustained balances. Amatriain tackles the steps with ease, putting accents in all the right places, moving with purpose and conviction throughout. For his part, Kaniskin displays clean lines and solid partnering.

The Stuttgart couple also appeared in a comic piece to the music of Rossini, choreographed by Christian Spuck, “Le Grand”. A parody of the conventions of classical pas de deux, the piece pokes fun at everything from “Swan Lake” to “Giselle.” The dancers’ humour drew roars of laughter from an audience that is all too familiar with these classical works. Kaniskin is dressed in typical prince-like garb, while Amatrian accessorizes her tutu with thick glasses and a flamboyant handbag, which she uses to hit her partner. The dancers collide, mimic classical pantomime and execute lifts in awkward positions. After a series of fouettés, the ballerina stumbles about dizzily and crawls offstage. Despite the hilarity, the technical strength of the dancers is apparent throughout.

After “Le Grand,” the “Don Quixote” pas de deux was almost jarring in its histrionics. Still, the showpiece provided the bravura that one comes to expect with these types of galas. The pas de deux was aptly performed by Alina Somova and Leonid Sarafanov of the Kirov Ballet, who appeared earlier in the evening in the “Le Corsaire” pas de deux. The 23 year-old Sarafanov exemplifies the beauty and purity of Petipa with an elegance beyond his years. His dancing is soaring and exuberant yet precise and controlled. Form is never sacrificed for difficulty, and every leap and turn is finished calmly and neatly. The series of flawless double tours and double pirouettes at the end of his variation brought the house down. Sarafanov is definitely one to watch in the future.

Somova, only 21, is confident and charming but needs to develop more nuances in her dancing. Surely this will come with time. She is a strong adagio dancer with remarkable flexibility, but she rarely shows variation in the steps. Each developpé is up to her ears, and she often kicks her leg up rather than sustaining the motion. After a while, one soon tires of seeing the underside of her tutu as it flops over whenever she executes a 6 o’clock position. She also tends to sway her back, breaking the harmony in her line. Still, in “Don Quixote” she demonstrated some lovely balances. Furthermore, Somova deserves credit for performing a total of 64 fouettés in one night! In “Le Corsaire” she had problems with travelling sideways and stuck with single pirouettes. Her turns were stronger in “Don Quixote” and she managed to throw in several doubles while opening and closing her fan.

American Ballet Theatre principals Irina Dvorovenko and Maxim Beloserkovsky, partners on-stage and off, had great chemistry in Marie Chimengiller’s “Farewell” duet set to Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.23. But I liked them even better in Twyla Tharp’s sassy “Known by Heart” pas de deux set to the syncopated rhythms of Donald Knaack’s “Junk Music.” It’s a fun piece with sliding feet and loose hips, and both dancers allowed their personalities to shine through. The pas de deux demonstrated their fluency in movement, musicality and wit—a different sort of virtuosity.

The program was rounded out with Davide Bombana’s “Century Rolls” and Roland Petit’s “Thaïs” pas de deux featuring the talents of another husband-wife team, Munich Ballet’s Cyril Pierre and Lucia Lacarra. “Thaïs” was the final piece, a fitting end to a great evening of dance. The “Thaïs” pas de deux is lushly romantic, full of gorgeous lifts and promenades. Pierre and Lacarra are veterans of the “Stars of the 21st Century” galas, participating every year since the gala’s inception 11 years ago. They have a special rapport on stage and a special relationship with the audience.

Proceeds from the gala were donated towards the cultural programming of the Koffler Centre for the Arts and the Bathurst Jewish Community Centre. The Centre celebrates creative expression through dance, visual arts, music and literature. The “Stars of the 21st Century” gala is particularly fulfilling because we are not only witnessing great art but also ensuring its place in the future.

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