REVIEW: Ballet Russe ‘Stars of Russian Ballet’ Gala, Aug 27 2011

by Julie Gervais

It was indeed a starry starry night in Ann Arbor on Saturday, when Ballet Russe/Russian Artists International presented the second ‘Stars of Russian Ballet’ Gala.

The concept of a gala performance is one of shameless indulgence. It can be likened to an entire menu of dessert courses – service of at least a dozen exquisite treats usually reserved for the end of the meal. (This metaphor holds true only for those with a sweet tooth.) But the ballet world is human too, and once in a while, it’s a very good idea to throw the rules out the window.

The success of a Gala depends entirely on the quality of the dancers. Aside from technical excellence, they must be accomplished artists who can, in just a few moments, draw an audience in – to the character, the setting, the whole world of a ballet that is normally developed over a period of hours. No one exemplified this better on Saturday night than Olga Pavlova.

Ms. Pavlova is a mensch. She’s a prima ballerina as well as a master teacher, and could easily direct everyone on the stage. (Full disclosure: I’ve watched her work in the studio and in rehearsals.) She first appeared on Saturday as Schéhérazade, dripping with a knowing sensuality. The intensity of her focus is gripping. Even someone who doesn’t know about ‘One Thousand and One Nights’ will be in no doubt about what this woman means to accomplish.Her next appearance, that of the already-deceased Giselle in that ballet’s Act II, is so solemnly sad and yet full of steely will and determination to save her love, Count Albrecht (Ludovico Pace) from a terrible fate, proving you can have strength of spirit even when you’re just a spirit. To conjure these characters out of thin air requires that every gesture, every step, and every glance be true, and Ms. Pavlova’s are.

Her Schéhérazade partner, Sergei Sidorski, is a welcome returning guest from last year’s Gala. Principal dancer of the National Ballet of Ukraine, he brings a commanding but refined power to everything he dances, and does so in an unassuming and gallant way. He had a busy night, also partnering the very young Patricia Zhou in the Swan Lake adagio, and in the evening’s final treat, dancing the firecracker Don Quixote pas de deux with Yana Salenko, Principal dancer of Staatsballet Berlin.

Ms. Zhou’s work shows remarkable maturity. She is in the category of “very tiny” ballerinas, and her upper body moves with a delicate fragility. Her Odette benefited from this quality and was set off beautifully with a strong and proud back. Her contemporary and fellow Detroiter, Haley Schwan, has a very American verve, now embedded in her polished classical training. In addition to her Corsaire Odalisque and solo part of the Don Quixote pas de deux, she got to dig into the most lighthearted fun of the evening in a contemporary piece called ‘Come Neve al Sole’, also with Ludovico Pace. Done in soft slippers, it was a great example of the sophistication brought to contemporary work by classically trained dancers.

Ms. Salenko was a delight, spinning her way slowly out of attitude tours in the Corsaire pas deux like a spider throwing a web, and holding remarkable balances. One of these, during the Don Q pas de deux, went on so long that it threatened to hold up the proceedings and produced an admiring smile from her partner.

Maria Kochetkova (San Francisco Ballet Principal) has an uncanny ability to color a step with what would seem to be conflicting characteristics – she can be razor sharp and velvety soft at the same time, to remarkable effect. She was partnered in the Sleeping Beauty pas de deux and in the Tchaikovsky pas de deux by Gennadi Nedvigin (also a SFB Principal) whose beautiful ballon and crisp tours en l’air were all of a piece with his perfect form.

Ana Sophia Scheller (New York City Ballet soloist) and Joseph Phillips (American Ballet Theatre) offered two pas de deux: Diana and Acteon, and Esmerelda. Perhaps the least well known of the pieces on the program (and therefore both slightly bigger challenges for an audience that is expecting all familiar crowd-pleasers), they nevertheless won hearts. (And the Esmerelda coda, musically, is an uphill battle. It fails to build momentum and just wanders aimlessly – a mashup of coda ideas.) Shinobu Takita (also a principal dancer in Ukraine) gracefully returned again this year and presented perhaps one of the most emotional Dying Swans in memory.Ukrainian native Simon Wexler bounded and rebounded through an authentic Ukrainian Gopak that fairly defined what it means to be young and ebullient.

At this point, people who saw the performance are wondering why I have left someone out. All right, so, Daniil Simkin was also there. Of course, he wasn’t just there. He electrified the house. If Hurricane Irene had taken a westward detour and knocked out power (to the Power Center!), this show would have gone on. With his every step, he made clear that his current position as ballet’s young prince is entirely based on merit

Simkin in 'Les Bourgeois'

Simkin in 'Les Bourgeois'

(well, plus charm). He turned superbly, he jumped effortlessly, he did things in the air that will require several slow motion replays to even understand. In addition to opening the show with Yana Salenko in the Corsaire pas de deux, he brought his signature ‘Bourgeois’ to life from fans’ (doubtless many) YouTube views. I think Jacques Brel would love it. The audience certainly did.

The ‘Stars of Russian Ballet’ Gala is the culminating event in a two-week Russian Ballet Festival that gives students the opportunity to study with many of these extraordinary artists at the Academy of Russian Classical Ballet in Novi. It was these students who were first out on the stage in the Sleeping Beauty waltz, demonstrating that the whole endeavor is, at its heart, an educational mission as well as a cultural one. Ann Arbor and Detroit metro are all the richer for this, and if there are some who feel regretful at having missed it, be advised: next year’s Gala is scheduled for August 18. Mark your calendars!