On Sunday evening some of the biggest stars in the ballet world descended upon London’s Coliseum to pay homage to Rudolf Nureyev who would have been 72 years old last week (March 17). Throughout his dancing career Nureyev had a varied repertoire and it would be, of course, impossible to cover all of it or even a large enough chunk in one single tribute. So no trace of Giselle, Romeo and Juliet or even Ashton’s Marguerite and Armand. Instead quite a few loosely connected homages to the Soviet legend along with the usual mix of gala friendly pieces.
The first piece of the evening, José Limón’s 1949 The Moor’s Pavane - Variations on the Theme of Othello, isn’t a work one would immediately associate with Nureyev but the programme informs us this was once a key part of his touring repertoire. The piece was revived in 2008 by the Mikhailovsky Theatre and here it was danced by Irina Perren, Farukh Ruzimatov, Vera Arbuzova and Alexander Omar. Though it overstays its welcome, with Desdemona’s fateful scarf forever being passed around, this was a work ahead of its time and of historical interest. It features edgy lines and crouching movements à la Mats Ek and is danced off pointe. Through courtly dances we see Othello and Desdemona get progressively entangled in the tragedy, with Iago and his wife Emilia as sidekicks.
There were other treats in store such as the lovely Manon pas de deux beautifully danced by Roberta Marquez and David Makhateli and a bit of Russian folk fun Russkaya performed by the ever so elegant Ulyana Lopatkina. One feels that Ulyana’s mere presence on stage is enough to make one’s eyes pop out and Russkaya, with its soulful heart, is an example of a very simple yet effective indirect tribute (a videoclip of the piece can be found here). But first we had to sit through a somewhat pretentious Pas de deux of Tristan and Isolde by Kryzstof Pastor (dated 2006, so never danced by Nureyev himself) performed by Bolshoi’s Svetlana Zakharova and Andrei Merkuriev, followed by a serviceable rendition of the Black Swan Pas de Deux by ENB’s Erina Takahashi and Dmitri Gruzdyev.
Strong contenders for weakest links were Adagietto, danced by Béjart ballet AD Gil Roman and “A Picture Of…”, a short number set to Dido’s Lament (“When I am Laid In Earth”) danced by ex-POB Manuel Legris. For a man like Nureyev, who was so important in the history of the French company, this felt like a rather en passant homage, especially because there were no other Paris Opera Ballet dancers lined up for the evening. Of Adagietto we can say that Béjart was a keen admirer of Nureyev and Gil Roman is an impressive mover, but we knew we were in trouble the moment the curtain opened up to reveal a chair placed center stage.
The atmosphere greatly improved in the second part with the Third Movement of Pierrot Lunaire, a work set to Arnold Schoenberg’s Sprechstimme (spoken song – think an atonal punch in the gut), where choreographer Glen Tetley found Nureyev to be “wonderful, pure”. I have a strong bias in favor of Tetley, so the piece grabbed me instantly. I felt it was admirably danced and acted by Ivan Putrov (the vulnerable Pierrot), Edward Watson (the scheming Brighella) and by the flaming red sexy Columbine of Mara Galeazzi. Atonal punch or not, I long to see Pierrot Lunaire again in its entirety and I spent the better part of the following piece, Elegy (danced by Olga Esina and Vladimir Shishov), a forgettable pas de deux loosely based on Nureyev’s relationship with Margot Fonteyn, wondering whether Pierrot would be revived by the Royal Ballet anytime soon.
Other mini delights were Jerome Robbins’s Afternoon of a Faun (danced by Bolshoi’s Nina Kaptsova and Dmitry Gudanov), Hans Van Manen’s Trois Gnossienes (with queen Ulyana again, partnered by the tall and bulky Ivan Kozlov), a lyrical white Swan Pas de Deux (Marianela Nuñez and David Makhateli – replacing Thiago Soares) and a pitch perfect rendition of the Coppélia Pas de Deux by Alina Cojocaru and Sergei Polunin (standing in for Johan Kobborg).
We did struggle to find the link between Coppélia and Nureyev, certainly not a dancer frequently seen in the role of Franz. The programme informed us that Coppélia was the first production done by POB when Nureyev took over as their Artistic Director in 1983. Oh well… We ceased to moan the moment Alina and Sergei stepped on stage. They were elegant, fluid, full of authority. Sergei, in particular, proving there’s more to jumping than simply taking off and landing. Their Coppélia Pas was the gala’s peak. I thought it would be quite a challenge to follow such an act and, indeed, extensions-mad Black by Francesco Ventiglia (Zakharova and Merkuriev again) and Don Quixote pas de deux (Iñaki Urlezaga and Olga Esina) failed to ignite the same sparks as Alina and Sergei. With their artistry, they more than paid their share of homage to Nureyev.