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Stars of the 21st Century Gala

by Denise Sum

April 29, 2007 -- Toronto Centre for the Arts, Toronto

The “Stars of the 21st Century” gala, directed by Nadia Veselova-Tencer and produced by Solomon Tencer, has appeared in major dance centres such as New York and Paris. But in Toronto, where tours from international companies are rare, the “Stars of the 21st Century” ballet gala is especially valued. In Toronto, where the gala has become a cherished tradition, the event is a window onto the international dance community, a singular opportunity to experience the talent and creativity of foreign dancers and choreographers. There is nothing more exciting than seeing several of the world’s top companies represented in an assortment of classical and contemporary works on one stage for one night.  It is vitally important for artists and audiences alike to have this exposure to different styles and perspectives. This year, each performer shone in his or her own unique way.

The two great American ballet companies, New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre, were represented by Ashley Bouder and Herman Cornejo respectively. The couple opened the evening with a rousing interpretation of Balanchine’s sprightly “Tarantella”. Cornejo appeared previously in the 2004 “Stars of the 21st Century” gala. Torontonians remember him for his daring bravura and charismatic stage presence in “Le Corsaire” and as the bronze idol in “La Bayadere”. In “Tarantella”, a work often associated with Edward Villella, Cornejo moved with speed and unbelievable amplitude. He made the role his own and brought a lighthearted, boyish charm to the piece. He could have very easily stolen the show; fortunately, his partner was more than capable of keeping up. Bouder is one of the strongest ballerinas in the business. Her bold attack and crisp technique exude a confidence that is both refreshing and exciting. The pair seemed to feed off of each other’s energy and the performance was a delight. How lucky the audience was to have the rare opportunity to see these dancers from very different companies perform together.

Bouder and Cornejo reappeared for the final number, the pas de deux from Vaganova’s “Diana and Acteon”. Yes, this is standard Russian warhorse gala fare, but these gifted artists were able to make the familiar feel fresh. Bouder’s balances and turns were bang on and Cornejo’s pyrotechnic jumps were awe-inspiring. Their dancing demonstrated how true artists push the boundaries of technique without reducing the choreography to acrobatic tricks.

The National Ballet of Canada was well represented by two couples. Guillaume Côté and Xiao Nan Yu (replacing Heather Ogden) performed Cranko’s “Romeo and Juliet” pas de deux, another gala favourite. Their portrayal of the young lovers was compelling and warm. The two are not often paired, but Côté is a responsive partner. They danced well together and made the sweeping lifts seem spontaneous and natural.

Zdenek Konvalina and Bridgett Zehr, both new members of the NBoC previously from the Houston Ballet, appeared in “A Simple Moment” by Montreal’s enfant terrible Eddy Toussaint. The pas de deux won a choreography prize at the Helsinki International Ballet Competition in 1984. The pas de deux is beautiful in its simplicity. Set to Albinoni’s Adagio in G minor for strings and organ, the choreography is clean and flowing. Despite intricate lifts and promenades, there is an understated elegance and a sense of calm that permeates the piece. Although the pas de deux occasionally veers toward sentimental and maudlin, Konvalina and Zehr committed themselves completely and the performance felt genuine. Zehr’s plastique brings to mind that of gala darling Lucia Lacarra (a crowd favourite who for the first time, did not appear in the Toronto edition of “Stars”), although less extreme.

On the classical side, “La Sylphide” pas de deux, performed by Sarah Lamb and Ivan Putrov (Royal Ballet), was a highlight of the evening. Lamb is a captivating sylph, making James’ infatuation all the more convincing. Her dancing has a rare purity; her movements are free of pretence or mannerism. Putrov’s James was similarly sincere. His acting was complimented by skilful allegro. In his grand jetés, he remained airborne longer than seemed humanly possible. Putrov was actually a replacement for David Makhateli. Lamb and Makhateli were originally scheduled to dance Ashton’s “Sylvia” pas de deux and another pas de deux from “Manon”. “La Sylphide” was a good choice for this last minute substitution, as there is little partnering involved.

The Royal Ballet couple also appeared individually in quirky solos choreographed by Ben van Cauwenberghe. Putrov was an anti-establishment drunkard in “Les Bourgeois” (Jacques Brel), Lamb a strong-willed and unapologetic in “Non Je ne Regrette Rien” (Edith Piaf). Putrov was comical and witty in his solo and Lamb tackled the unconventional choreography well, but neither really seemed to get under the skin of these works. “La Sylphide” proved to be a far better showcase of their abilities.

In the same vein, the Bolshoi Ballet’s Svetlana Lunkina and Artem Shpilevsky looked wonderful in Uwe Scholz’s “Jeune Homme”, while Roland Petit’s “Pink Floyd” pas de deux was just ridiculous and out of place. “Jeune Homme”, set to Mozart, was not totally memorable and the costumes (black long sleeved dress and a choker for her, black sleeveless turtleneck unitard for him) were not flattering, but certainly made use of Shpilevsky’s strong partnering and Lunkina’s gorgeous extension. The Pink Floyd piece juxtaposed the classic rock song “The Great Gig in the Sky” with choreography that was either too conventional a match for the music, or just plain awkward. The talent of these dancers was wasted on this piece.

Some of the more interesting choreography of the evening came from Ronald Savkovic of the Berlin State Opera Ballet. He performed in two of his works, joined by the stunning and statuesque Beatrice Knop. “Jack and Water” channels William Forsythe with its sensual off-kilter movements and heavy techno/electronic music. “Transparente” uses the music of Fado Portugués to tell a story of passion and longing. Not only did Savkovic and Knop have a strong rapport with each other, but they also forged a deep connection with the audience during the few minutes they were on stage. Both pas de deux, especially the latter, were intense and visceral.

Finally, the varied program also included dancers from Complexions Contemporary Ballet (New York). The powerful Rubinald Pronk and elastic Clifford Williams performed “Duo” choreographed by one of the company’s founders, Dwight Rhoden. The athletic grace, stamina, effortlessness, and expression of the dynamic pair were marvellous. The same could be said of Desmond Richardson (co-founder of Complexions) in “Moonlight Solo”, in which syncopated rhythms and frenzied running present the familiar Beethoven sonata in a new light.

Experiencing great art, such as that which was presented in this gala performance, reminds us of the importance of creative expression in our own communities and at large. The proceeds from the gala were earmarked for cultural programming and scholarships at the Koffler Centre for the Arts in North York. The Koffler Centre is a not-for-profit community organization that offers visual, literary, and performing arts education.

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