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!


Patricia Zhou of Canton, MI to Perform in ‘Stars of Russian Ballet Gala’

Patricia Zhou was born in Canada but raised in Canton, MI. She left home at age 13 to attend the renowned Kirov Academy in Washington, D.C., beginning her serious ballet training so late, by ballet’s timetable, as to put a professional career out of reach to all but the most gifted of dancers. The swiftness of her progress is a testament to what can be achieved when extreme talent is met by unrelenting hard work. She has amassed a startling collection of awards in international ballet competitions, including at the Prix de Lausanne in 2011, the 2010 Beijing International Ballet Festival, and the Youth America Grand Prix. She has been featured in the national dance publications Pointe and DanceSpirit, and made her national television debut in May on ABC’s Dancing with the Stars. She begins her professional career in the fall as an apprentice, with the title of Prix de Lausanne dancer, in London’s Royal Ballet. She will perform in Saturday’s Ann Arbor Gala in the Act II adagio from Swan Lake, a variation in the Don Q suite, and in one of the Odalisque variations from Le Corsaire.


dp: What was your dance training prior to leaving MI?

PZ: I started dancing when I was seven, very recreationally. I did tap/ballet combo, and slowly over the years i started doing jazz, lyrical, acro, etc. I competed as a lyrical dancer for a few years before I started really getting serious about dancing at 13, and considering a professional career in ballet.


dp: Then…

PZ: I then was introduced to the Kirov Academy. Knowing nothing about ballet, I just decided to audition and see if I could even get in. To my surprise, I got in with a 50% scholarship half-way through the audition. I decided as soon as I got out of the audition that I wanted to go there and study.

dp: What was it like there, both at first and once you got used to it?

PZ: At first, I was so in awe. All of the students were so proper and poised-very different than the teenagers I was used to seeing. I soon got used to the environment, and I feel it was a very good place to grow up. In ballet, I was always so nervous. I was in the lowest group, with all of the youngest students. I still had very little experience and it took me a while to learn all of the terms and pick up the combinations. After a few months, I was moved up a level, and I started to slowly get it more and more.

dp: How old were you when you made the decision to be a dancer? I mean, I know a lot of little girls get that idea, but mostly it fades away, while those that are serious eventually make an “informed” decision, i.e. when you really understood how much work it is and how tough the odds are.

PZ: I was 13 when I realized that I actually liked dancing and want to pursue a professional career. It was very surprising for my parents-even for me. It kind of came out of nowhere!! I didn’t really understand how competitive it was and how much hard work it took until quite recently when I got to work with and compete against dancers my own age from all over the world. Seeing what others have accomplished made me realize what I wanted, and needed, to accomplish in order to make it.

dp: Was the idea of leaving school and entering the professional world a bit scary at first?

PZ: Yes it was definitely very scary for me. I am still transitioning because working is definitely very different than studying. Most of the dancers have been with the company for a while so I am still trying to find my place in the company. I was very worried about not having a teacher hovering over my every move, making sure it was done correctly, but after a few days with the company, I am finding class very enjoyable, and I feel like my technique is still improving because now I am learning from watching the other dancers around me.

dp: How many dancers are in the Royal Ballet, and can you pick something that most exciting about being there?

PZ: There are about 90 dancers….[most exciting] dancing and working with such famous, world-class dancers, working at the Royal Opera House… It is so beautiful and grand!!

dp: Did you both know that you’d likely end up working outside the U.S.? And do you feel that the companies have kind of an international feel, so being a “foreigner” isn’t too big of a deal, or are there any issues that go with this?

PZ: I always wanted to dance in Europe. I feel like the dancers are treated better and more respected. I also like the repertoire of the European companies more, and they tend to do more full-length ballets. There are also dancers from all over the world, so I think it is more accepting to different cultures.

dp: . You’rejust starting out, and I know dancers are modest, so I’ll ask about short-term goals rather than long-term. What would you like to accomplish over the next couple of years? Do you have some dream roles you’d like to learn?

PZ: I would love to dance special parts and soloist roles. That would be amazing, especially performing at the beautiful Royal Opera House alongside such incredible dancers. I would love to dance “Giselle” and “Romeo and Juliet” someday as well as Forsythe’s “In the Middle Somewhat Elevated”. I would also enjoy learning Balanchine repertoire and working on new contemporary works.

dp: What is the most fun thing, or your favorite thing, you’ve done so far as a dancer?

PZ: My favorite thing about being a dancer is when you go on stage and just forget everything and dance. It has only truly happened a few times, but it feels incredible: like your body is dancing on its own, and all you have to do is enjoy the feeling of being onstage.

dp: Is there something you’d like to say to a young student who may be considering the same path?

PZ: My only advice is to work hard and never give up. If your mind is truly set on becoming a dancer, it’s necessary to understand that it will be incredibly difficult-physically, but even more so mentally. Dancing can be very discouraging and at times it may look hopeless, but those are the times you have to keep pushing yourself and just believe that you can achieve anything you’ve set your mind upon.