A gala for Galina

London’s Russian community was out in force on Sunday night at the Coliseum for the sixth annual gala under the umbrella title, The Russian Ballet Icons series.

This year, the icon to be worshipped was Galina Ulanova (1910-1998) whose face and form was projected onto the stage as a spectral image that came and went during the course of the evening.

It began with a lengthy eulogy given by Vladimir Vasiliev, former principal dancer at the Bolshoi Ballet, former artistic director of that company and now president of the Galina Ulanova Foundation.

The gala of 14 pieces – all but one of them a pas de deux – began and ended with the most tender and beautifully performed of them all, in which Ulyana Lopatkina of the Mariinsky Ballet danced both the waltz from Les Sylphides, and Orpheus and Eurydice, with Marat Shemiunov, the latter a graduate from the Vaganova Ballet Academy who seems to guest all over the world.

In Orpheus and Eurydice, the ballerina is lifted and carried in a winged victory pose.

Holding behind her a banner of sheer white fabric, Lopatkina looked so effortlessly born aloft that she might have floated away from her partner’s arms and up to the night sky, although a night flight might not be a good idea so close to the pizza and tired, fried chip aromas of the nearby Leicester Square.

Most of the female dancers in the gala were Russian and notable for their very expressive upper bodies.

Their arms in particular, seem as light and extended as vapour trails, as was so evident in the Bolshoi Ballet’s Svetlana Lunkina’s exquisite portrayal of Giselle, and the Dying Swan solo also performed by a Bolshoi ballerina, Svetlana Zakharova.

It was rapturously applauded but the trouble for me with this solo is twofold.

After seeing the self-destructing feathered tutu that features in the pantomime version by the Trocks’ ballet boys, it’s hard to watch the Pavlova party piece with a straight face. And there is also something so cliched these days in the notion of an extremely tiny, vulnerable bird woman whose fragility is the personification of the anorexic, self loathing ballerina as portrayed in Black Swan.

I preferred Zakharova’s portrayal of Lady Macbeth in Vasiliev’s choreography, in which poor Macbeth (Andrei Uvarov) looks as though he might expire either from fear, or from an orgasm brought on by his wife’s weapon-like legs emerging from her scarlet dress and wrapping around his tottering body.

For those of us from the antipodes who remember the Soviet galas imported by Michael Edgley in the 1960s and ‘70s, it was a stroll down memory lane to see once again the old faithfuls, Flames of Paris, Diana and Acteon (brilliantly danced by Paris Opera Ballet etoiles, Dorothee Gilbert and Thiego Soares), and a variation from The Red Poppy, another extraordinary performance by the Bolshoi’s Darya Khokhlova.

The medal for the biggest surprise of the night went to the look, Ma, no arms or hands lift in Angelin Preljocaj’s Le Parc, in which Vladimir Malakhov lifted Nadia Saidakova (both from Staatsballet Berlin) with only his neck and torso for her support.

The biggest disappointment – was Sinatra Variations in which Tatyana Gorokhova, dancing with Igor Zelensky, seemed uncomfortable in her heeled court shoes and with the lifts in what should look so light hearted and sexy, as choreographed by Twyla Tharp in the 1980s for Baryshnikov and Elaine Kudo.

Zelensky carried off the final Sinatra solo, danced to One For My Baby (and One More for the Road), with aplomb but by then it was too late. The mood had gone and it wasn’t even a quarter to three.

Another niggle was the generally slapdash staging of the gala, including the shadowy figures of stagehands seen walking behind the backcloth, and a sloppy lighting change in which Vadim Muntagirov (the English National Ballet soloist) was forced to start his Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux variation against the backcloth projection of Macbeth, the next piece in the program.

The most engaging pas de deux was that of the graduating Vaganova Academy students Olga Smirnova and Sergey Strelkov – both only 20 years old – in Messerer’s Dvorak Melody. Ballet choreography might be seen as a tottering edifice but with dancers of such artistry as these two, ballet is not going to die as a theatre art form in the 21st century.

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Galina Ulanova as Giselle

Galina Ulanova as Giselle

Galina Ulanova in honour of her centenary

Galina Ulanova in honour of her centenary

Svetlana Lunkina in Giselle

Svetlana Lunkina in Giselle