We’re a little bit late with this, but there’s still time to recap on our favourite performances of 2019. We had a good year, with San Francisco Ballet and the Bolshoi in London and ABT, The Royal Ballet and the Mariinsky in California. We were lucky to catch many noteworthy role debuts and watch young dancers develop and form new partnerships. If you saw any of the shows below, let us know if you agree – and feel free to tell us about your own picks!
1) Ivan Putrov’s ballet gala, Against the Stream
I admit that I had given up on ballet galas before coming across this one. Why? Galas usually mean dancers that cancel at short notice, higher ticket prices and random programming. However, Against the Stream lived up to its name. Not only did Putrov manage to deliver on a solid cast (incl. New York City Ballet’s Maria Kowroski and Tyler Angle) and a repertory that is not often seen in London (think MacMillan’s Images of Love), but we could feel he had really handpicked ballets to fit within the evening’s theme: works by choreographers who challenged the status quo.
2) Francesca Hayward and Cesar Corrales in Romeo and Juliet
I know that MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet gets revived every other year at the Royal Ballet. However, evenings like this one – when Cesar Corrales debuted as Romeo to Francesca Hayward’s vivid Juliet in May 2019 – are rare. I was entirely transported, there was a sense you were seeing the characters come alive, transcending dance. They were so moving I was shattered to pieces. I also remember the supporting cast being superb: Matthew Ball’s Tybalt was brooding and menacing, while Marcelino Sambé’s Mercutio and James Hay’s Benvolio were best in class.
3) Natalia Osipova and Jonathan Goddard in Arthur Pita’s The Mother
This was as home run from everyone involved. In a production that can be described as “Guillermo del Toro’s imagination meets dance theatre”, Osipova was free to hone in on her gothic exuberance. Goddard plays death, or the many faces of death, and he is creepy, scary and yet, he’s also stylish. It works. The Mother is a unique creation, rich in metaphor and outstanding in every way. But it’s not a staging for the faint of heart.
4) Ekaterina Krysanova and David Motta Soares in The Bolshoi’s Don Quixote
Not long before the Bolshoi’s visit to London, I had chatted with Emilia and our friend Laura Cappelle about Don Q being overrated. Too much filler, not much substance. After my first Don Q of this tour, I was eating my hat. I now have no doubt that the Bolshoi does Don Q better than anyone. They have the panache, they understand this is not about depth, but about performance and pleasing the crowds. The three casts I saw were tremendous, but a highlight for me was David Motta Soares, the young Brazilian soloist, who was a charming Basilio and who coped very well with all the technical difficulties of the role (including those one-handed lifts). Krysanova was exuberant as Kitri and the adoring London audience showed its appreciation.
5) The Royal Ballet in Enigma Variations
No one is more surprised than me, since I had always considered Ashton’s Enigma Variations to be boring and twee. I didn’t get its appeal at all. But this revival was a true revelation, I was extremely moved by the ballet. Okay, technically not much happens: the composer Edward Elgar is at home in Worcestershire and invites some of his friends over. He awaits a message from London. The ballet is a series of vignettes for each of these characters, and we understand their stories through the steps. It’s a ballet about feelings, longing and the everyday. I honestly can’t imagine any other company doing justice to this work. Although both casts I saw were superb, Gary Avis debuting as Elgar and Laura Morera’s touching Lady Elgar were a highlight.
1) ABT’s Harlequinade in Costa Mesa
My ballet year started off strong with the San Francisco Ballet Gala (which returns this week to officially kick off ballet season in the city, yay!) and a trip to Costa Mesa to catch Alexei Ratmansky’s Harlequinade. I’m not going to lie, this is not my favourite Ratmansky work. If we take his recent full-length narrative output, I much prefer the bonkers-surreal Whipped Cream. But there’s still plenty to admire in Harlequinade: the choreography is delightful, steps are pretty and suitably tricky, Robert Perdziola has designed some of the most gorgeous costumes out there (in particular, the long dresses and lark tutus from the second act), and I could not have asked for better dancers than Daniil Simkin and Skylar Brandt in the lead roles. As a huge fan of ABT and its artist-in-residence, this is a natural highlight.
2) San Francisco Ballet in Ratmansky’s Shostakovich Trilogy
In this interview with SFB’s principal dancer Ulrik Birkkjaer, we discussed some aspects of Ratmansky’s ambitious Shostakovich Trilogy. How many choreographers have been able to successfully package so many facets of a complex composer and of his troubled times into a single evening’s programme? I continue to find this trilogy one of the most fascinating “abstract” ballets to watch. There’s always a new layer to get into, a new theme to dissect. This time for me, it was all about the opposite couples in Symphony No. 9. who represent conformism and fear of repression, or like Ulrik put it: “[the] couple that doesn’t work in that society, and that is trying to either find a way out or is just not functioning”. Oh, there’s also the glorious music.
3) Merce Cunningham Movie
As I mentioned in my review, this movie was shot in 18 days, with limited funding. But it’s an amazing sensorial experience in 3D that honours Merce Cunningham’s genius as a choreographer and as artistic director. The spatial thinking, the high aesthetics and the beauty of balletic line are all celebrated in many memorable dance sequences. The movie has a wide appeal: you don’t need to know anything about the American visionary choreographer in order to understand it and enjoy it. Cunningham in 3D is pure escapism through art.
4) Mariinsky on tour
The Mariinsky’s visit to Zellerbach Hall in October was a ballet lover’s dream. It is a shame the company isn’t a yearly fixture in the Bay, but they made it count by treating us to 3 amazing casts (my favorite pair of the run? Definitely Ekaterina Kondaurova and Andrei Yermakov) and a solid programme, with La Bayadère on the bill. The glorious vision that is a Kingdom of Shades with 32 ballet dancers – as opposed to the 24 we get in the Royal Ballet / ABT production by Makarova - is an experience to cherish. And while I acknowledge there are problematic themes in La Bayadère, it has slowly become one of my favorite full length ballets, due to the two amazing lead ballerina roles it presents.
5) We celebrated ten years!
Although we didn’t have an official celebration, The Ballet Bag turned 10 in May, can you believe it? It was a busy time for us with our day jobs, and we didn’t manage to get together and plan something special. We didn’t even manage to update this site, despite planning it for months. It doesn’t matter. We continue to enjoy watching all these ballets and we want to keep sharing the performances we find truly special with you all. I often talk to people who enjoy dance — and who even used to do ballet at some point in their lives. And I am puzzled when I find that some have never heard of the great companies, of the great dancers of today and even the great choreographers. Sure, they have heard of Paris Opera Ballet and of the Bolshoi, but how can they not know how fab Danish National Ballet is? Not know about Justin Peck and his pop ballets in sneakers? How can any Brazilian dance lover not know about the ballerina Carla Körbes, and just how special she was during her acclaimed career with PNB? This is a place where we can tell some of these stories, and where people can (re)connect with this strange, ephemeral yet living-and-breathing art form.