Canada All-Star Ballet Gala: From Russia with Love

Svetlana Lunkina and Ruslan Skvortsov in The Pharaoh’s Daughter.

There’s a lot of talk about Russia right now, about its extraordinary influence on other countries’ political structures and growing impact on world affairs. That talk resonates on the front pages of newspapers. And, recently, it could also be heard at the ballet, where a program billed as masterpieces of the classical repertoire –despite also being composed of works from other nations – was Russian to the core. It couldn’t help but be. Canada All-Star Ballet Gala, a one-night only performance that took place at Toronto’s Sony Centre on February 11, owed its grandeur and impeccable styling to the great choreographers schooled at Russia’s Imperial Theatre in St. Petersburg more than a century ago. Artistic director Svetlana Lunkina knows that tradition well.

A former Bolshoi ballerina who has been dancing as a principal dancer with the National Ballet of Canada since relocating to this country in 2013, Lunkina trained extensively in the Russian school while a student at the revered Moscow Choreographic Academy in the 1990s. In her native Russia she danced the classics to critical acclaim and often alongside Sergei Filin, the former Bolshoi dance star who as company director made international headlines when a masked assailant partially blinded and disfigured him during an acid attack outside his Moscow home four years ago. Lunkina received a series of anonymous threats in the months following the incident, prompting a permanent move to Canada. But while she has traded in a world-famous company, for one still finding its way on the international stage, she has maintained the high standards associated with the Russian ballet.

For this gala, the first she has organized in her adopted country and the beginning of what she hopes will become a regular series, the Moscow native has aimed to share some of that legacy with Canadian audiences in hopes of fostering a deeper appreciation for the art form as a whole. Excerpted works from 15 ballets were showcased in a two-hour-plus program meant to illustrate the varying schools of ballet as developed over the centuries in France, Denmark, Russia, England and America. The point was to show how ballet is not a one-size-fits-all discipline, but a heady mixture of choreographic styles and national origins, making it richly nuanced and multifaceted.

Ballet, a nearly 500-year-old art form, continues to enthrall regardless of the passing of time. Each generation of ballet dancers is obliged to carry forward the core values of harmony, grace, poise and elegance. Modern ballet, the focus of a follow-up gala scheduled for Toronto in the fall, could not exist without this layered bedrock of inherited tradition. This was Lunkina’s message, as laid out in a thick and glossy keepsake program documenting the various styles of ballet through the ages. Her evening of dance, she explained, was meant to be educational. Canada, a young country with a fledgling ballet culture as compared to Russia, could benefit in knowing what came first – before the rise of the James Kudelkas and Christopher Wheeldons of this world.

Lauren Cuthbertson as Juliet in Romeo and Juliet. (Photo: Bill Cooper)

To achieve her goal, Lunkina curated a program of dance gems in which her pedagogical aims were abetted by an international cast of ballet superstars hand-picked from some of the world’s leading classical dance companies. The choreography was equally wide-ranging, with work coming from Amsterdam, Copenhagen, London, New York, Paris and St. Petersburg. Choreographers ranged from Marius Petipa in the 19th century to Rudi van Dantzig in the 20th, with masters like August Bournonville, George Balanchine, Frederick Ashton and Kenneth MacMillan in between. It was a spectacular achievement.

Lunkina’s artistic mandate permitted the inclusion of some anomalies to a program emphasizing the precision and aplomb of the classics: The Dying Swan, Mikhail Fokine’s tremulous four-minute solo, originally created for the great Anna Pavlova in 1905 and danced here by the National Ballet of Canada’s up-and-coming second soloist Hannah Fischer, for instance; and Van Dantzig’s emotional staging of Strauss’s Four Last Songs, a ballet with a style more modern dance than classical. Four Last Songs is a gorgeous piece of non-narrative dance, and National Ballet principal dancers Jillian Vanstone and Harrison James made it sing. Still, the Russian element dominated with more than half the program composed of ballets of Russian origin, including Don Quixote, Raymonda, La Bayadère and the rarely seen The Pharaoh’s Daughter. Not that any one was complaining.

The Pharaoh’s Daughter, a faux historical ballet which Petipa created for the Imperial Theatre of St. Petersburg in 1862, was lost to audiences until French choreographer Pierre Lacotte recreated it for the Bolshoi in 2000 following the discovery of Petipa’s original notes. This curious artifact of the classical era has been performed only once before in North America, when the Bolshoi played New York’s Metropolitan Opera House in 2005. Ballet nerds typically have come to know it from repeated viewings of YouTube performance videos, and so being able to observe the work’s quicksilver footwork and intricate partnering up close in Toronto was a special treat and an evening highlight. Lunkina had danced The Pharaoh’s Daughter in Moscow and she did so again on this night, reuniting with her original partner, Ruslan Skvortsov, the Bolshoi ballet star who flew in especially for the occasion. The two also danced the adagio from La Bayadère, a sparkling performance which started the evening on a high note.

Later on in the program Lunkina danced again, this time an excerpt from Swan Lake (Lev Ivanov’s original 1895 choreography), assisted by Evan McKie, the National Ballet principal dancer. With this work especially, Lunkina gave rich expression to the pliable arms and supple back that are hallmarks of the Russian school. Her undulating limbs appeared boneless, prompting a member of the audience to declare out loud during her performance, “She is not a human. She is a swan.” High praise indeed. There were more thrilling moments besides.

National Ballet dancers Jurgita Dronina and Gabriele Frola brought down the house with a blistering rendition of the pas de deux from Don Quixote during the first half of the evening. Frola’s jet-propelled jumps saw him soar high above the stage while Dronina’s coquettish dance with a fan established her as a ballerina with winning stage presence and a confident hold on technique. Equally meriting admiration was Lauren Cuthbertson, the resplendent dancer from London’s Royal Ballet, who won a new committed cadre of fans in Toronto as a result of her honest and genuinely moving interpretation of the balcony scene pas de deux from MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet. It was one of the best performances of this ballet ever witnessed.

Friedemann Vogel and Rebecca Bianchi in La Chauve-Souris, in Paris earlier this year. (Photo: Yasuko Kageyama)

Dancing alongside the dashing American Ballet Theatre star Cory Stearns (you know him also from the Kylie Minogue video, “Chocolate”), Cuthbertson swooped and slid with breathtaking abandon into her attentive partner’s arms, convincingly communicating the fast-beating passion invigorating the Shakespeare-inspired ballet. The dancers matched each other’s artistry again when performing Ashton’s Rhapsody Pas De Deux, a fleet-footed work punctured by sculptural poses which debuted in England in 1980, on the occasion of the Queen Mother’s 80th birthday.

Cuthbertson’s subtly sensual performance combined with Stearns’s irresistible charm and agility looked hard to beat. Yet there were other contenders for the title of the evening’s best ballet duo.

Also making a huge impression was San Francisco Ballet’s Sofiane Sylve and Carlo Di Lanno, a real-life couple who danced with exquisite control and palpable feeling the “Diamonds” pas de deux from Balanchine’s full-length Jewels ballet. Earlier in the evening, the dancers had paired together to perform an excerpt from Ashton’s Cinderella, a full-length extolling the crystalline clarity of the English school. They were one of the evening’s big discoveries. Speaking of discoveries, Friedemann Vogel of Germany’s Stuttgart Ballet partnered with Rebecca Bianchi of the Rome Opera Ballet to dance the pas de deux from Roland Petit’s La Chauve-Souris, another rarely performed ballet, and one capturing the excitement and allure of the very French (and sexy) femme fatale. Vogel and Bianchi also danced the pas de deux from Raymonda, a ballet in the majestic Czarist style.

Representing the bubbly and buoyant Danish school were ABT principals Isabella Boylston and Alban Lendorf (also of the Royal Danish Ballet) dancing the sunny pas de deux from Bournonville’s 1858 one-act ballet The Flower Festival in Genzano. The partners again teamed up in the second half of the program to dance Tchaikovsky Pas De Deux, Balanchine’s eight-minute homage to the composer whose name is forever connected to the lasting greatness of the Russian ballet. A work highlighting virtuoso dancing and set to a rediscovered Tchaikovsky score, the ballet, dating to 1960, is fast and joyous, allowing for freedom of expression even as it cleaves to the tautness of a strict neo-classic line. This was Balanchine taking the dramatic heft of the old Russian ballet and tying it to modernism. As an expression of ballet’s ability to reinvent itself, it fit right in with an evening in which tradition was made to look new again, and thanks to the discerning eye of a Russian ballerina.

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