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Galina Ulanova Gala

Sometimes the gods come down to visit

by Charlotte Kasner

May 15, 2011 -- London Coliseum, London, UK

I was not born when Galina Sergeeva Ulanova retired and was therefore only able to see her on film; we are lucky that a fair amount of it exists. Although it is no substitute for live performance, it is easy to see the magic that Ulanova wove over her audience. her predecessors, without the benefits of recording the ephemeral, are remembered through their legend - an advantage in that they cannot be compared unfavourably as tastes and expectations change. Ulanova however, became an iconic figure in the first generation of Soviet people to have benefited from the vast expansion of literacy and general education, including a great respect for the arts and culture, and her photographs were cherished by soldiers on both sides during the Great Patriotic war (WWII), on one occasion being stolen from a Kommandant’s wall to line a Russian foot soldier's pocket. She benefited too, from the following generation who grew up with television and who could follow her live performances from all over the Soviet Union and its dominions.

Hints of her capabilities had filtered through to Europe and the USA ahead of the groundbreaking London performance in 1956 when many queued on the pavement for three days in the hope of a seat on the gallery benches. She is quoted as saying that she hoped to entrance people with theatre so that they could forget that they were perhaps sitting a long way away from the stage in uncomfortable seats and there is no doubt that she succeeded in spades as far as many Londoners were concerned.

So, she is indeed a fitting subject for the latest Ensemble Productions gala, introduced by a former subject of a similar gala and Artistic Director of the gala, the great Vladimir Viktorovich Vasiliev.

The programme opened with an excerpt from “Les Sylphides”, perhaps a ballet that is better when seen in small sections than as a whole, and paradoxically illustrative of a new wave in choreography heralded by Mikhail Mikhailovich Fokine as he paid tribute to Romantic ballet. Ulyana Lopatkina looked light as a feather, with her controlled landings and sensitive partnering from Marat Shemiunov was of great assistance.

The “Sinatra Variations” are a hard act to follow for those of us who remember Barishnikov, and whilst forgivably lacking in that level of charisma, Tatyana Gorokhova and Igor Zelensky were slick.

No tribute to Ulanova could be complete without “Romeo and Juliet”. The 1956 Bolshoi tour introduced London to what was then a very new (and in some ways controversial) ballet. Perhaps hundreds of versions have been produced since, but, however many we see, no one who saw Ulanova execute her amazing run across the set could forget her - incredibly, like Fonteyn after her, able to portray an adolescent even when well into her forties. The re-creation of the Lavrovsky version was seen in London recently and looked very dated, but it is worth catching Ulanova on film where time seems to be more kind. Evgenia Obraztsova and David Makhateli played the lovers in the balcony pas de deux and it was really good to hear the wonderful English National Ballet Orchestra, conducted by Valery Ovsyanikov, in the ballet for which they recently played with their own Company in this very theatre.

“Le Parc” segued beautifully from Prokofiev to Mozart, Nadia Saidakova and Vladimir Malakhov adapting to Preljocaj's exciting choreography with a tantalising glimpse of this work.

“Diana and Acteon” however is an example of the ghastly musical mish mash of mid-nineteenth century ballet by Pugni, like Minkus, a ballet hack composing by the yard with little regard to period or continuity. This pas de deux is memorable more for its choreographers, Vaganova and Chabukiani, who were pillars of early and mid Soviet period dance. Dorothée Gilbert and Thiago Soares were convincing as goddess and voyeur who is destined to be turned into a stag for his curiosity and devoured by Diana’s hounds.

“Dvorak Melody” was a real revelation and a reminder of just how great Asaf Messerer was (and not least, how much ballet owes to other members of the Messerer family). Olga Smirnova and Sergey Strelkov were excellent.

Ulanova became known for dancing Fokine’s “Dying Swan” before it became an often, badly danced, cliché that parodies classical ballet. Though short, it is not easy to pull off and Svetlana Zakharova struggled in places. It was a little ‘flappy’ without the sense of fading, steely strength and she skipped the fiendish backbend that is usually included.

The second section opened with a tribute to another signature role for Ulanova, a pas de deux from “Giselle”. Dmitri Gudanov dazzled with sharp, brilliant batterie and Svetlana Lunkina slipped effortlessly from his grip like a will o' the wisp.

However, it was the young, comparatively inexperienced Vadim Muntagirov who really set the stage on fire in “Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux”. He has strong technique and real presence, currently being nurtured, luckily for us, by English National Ballet. He was here partnered by ENB’s most experienced dancer Daria Klimentova. Somewhat diminutive, she is not an obvious choice for Balanchine but she imbued her role with accuracy and a sweetness that travels well over the footlights and is an audience pleaser.

Vladimir Vasiliev is no where near as well known as a choreographer as he should be, here illustrated by a dramatic pas de deux from his 1980 production of “Macbeth”. Luckily this has been available on video and is well worth investigating. Zakharova was by turns glacial and sexily pliant as the Scottish queen in fiery red, Andrei Uvarov her scheming foil.

Vasiliev’s choreography was also represented in an adagio from his version of the Soviet classic “The Red Poppy”. It was a real tour de force for Darya Khokhlova and shows that the crude accusation of Socialist Realism that have prevented this work from gaining a wider audience is misplaced. Khokhlova certainly left us wanting more.

The “La Belle” pas de deux was the one big flaw of the evening. Any allusion to “Sleeping Beauty” was hard to discern from this presentation that was frankly vulgar and left poor Aurora looking like a shop dummy in skimpy underwear being manhandled by her ‘prince’.

“Flame(s) of Paris” is another recent re-discovery that, on film at least reminds us how utterly exciting such works can be. Ekaterina Krysanova didn't put foot wrong as she barely had time to draw breath between lighting fast, on the spot fouettes and petit tours that make a refreshing change from the ever-present “Don Quixote” fireworks. Again, more please.

The evening drew to a close with Lopatkina and Marat Shemuinov in the pas de deux from Messerer’s “Orpheus and Euridice”. Lopatkina was positively sculptural, reminding us of Messerer’s famous (male) ribbon dance solo and underlining the basic tragedy behind the classic tale.

Finally, to the opening strains of Aurora’s wedding music, the dancers laid floral tributes at the foot of Ulanova’s image in a touching tribute.

This was a very polished evening that both pricked the eyes with nostalgia and left one feeling very secure in the future of the art, at least on an artistic and technical basis.

We look forward to seeing the next great similarly honoured.

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