Review: English National Ballet - A Tribute to Rudolf Nureyev

Performance: 25 - 27 July 2013
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Friday 26 July 2013

English National Ballet's  Esteban Berlanga & Vadim Muntagirov in Béjart’s 'Song of a Wayfarer' Photo: John Ross

Rudolf Nureyev enjoyed a robust association, as both dancer and choreographer, with London Festival Ballet (the former name of English National Ballet). His first involvement was to mount a production of The Sleeping Beauty in 1974 – and his final appearance with the company came in Coppélia, some 13 years later. The raw realism in Nureyev’s own version of Romeo & Juliet still remains a cornerstone of the company’s repertory. It is fitting, therefore, that ENB should celebrate this important anniversary year, marking both the 75th anniversary of Nureyev’s birth and the 20th year since his death. This special ENB tribute is a little belated (Nureyev died in January and was born in March) but it must have been difficult to find a window amongst the many such anniversary events around the world.

Tamara Rojo, the ENB’s rookie artistic director, rounds off a good first season with a flourish. Choosing the constituent parts of any triple bill is a fine art, even more so when the programme has such significance as to represent an amazingly prolific life, lived so memorably, but all too briefly. And on this score she has bagged a winner.

It was a particular risk to schedule the sparse sentimentality of Maurice Béjart’s Song of a Wayfarer, involving two male dancers on a bare stage, between the colourful carnival of Petrushka and the glittering wedding celebrations in Raymonda’s 3rd act but the gamble reaped the rich reward of outstanding performances. The Coliseum stage is a big space for two men to fill but this duo of Vadim Muntagirov and Esteban Berlanga enjoyed tremendous debuts in this most poignant of ballets. Set to a cycle of four songs for solo baritone and orchestra (words and music by Gustav Mahler), it tells of the loneliness of a constant traveller. In creating the ballet for Nureyev and Paolo Bortoluzzi in 1971, Béjart evolved the romantic concept of an apprentice (Nureyev) travelling from town to town in the Middle Ages, pursued by a figure representing his destiny (Bortoluzzi).

Nureyev was a dancer schooled in the highest standards of classical discipline but he sought to explore new avenues of dance as he grew older and here was a profound relevance with a young Russian dancer who has now made his life in the west taking the role created on Nureyev. As one of the world’s finest classical dancers, Muntagirov was well outside his comfort zone in the austerity of Béjart’s work. In particular, it’s hard for a dancer to find moments of rest in a work that exposes him so starkly. There is nowhere to hide as the audience’s attention is on the dancers for the duration of the ballet. Muntagirov delivered a poignant and appealing performance, the earnest expectation of the early songs turning to restlessness and ending with the young man condemned to unhappiness, as – in the final moments – he is pulled back from his desires by the figure of destiny. Rojo describes this as “one of the most beautiful ballets ever created for the male dancer” and, with performances as good as these, it is not an exaggeration. The clarity and opulence in the voice of Australian baritone, Nicholas Lester, greatly enriched the overall brilliance.

Petrushka is a classic remnant of the Ballets Russes age with its choreography by Mikhail Fokine and Igor Stravinsky’s dramatic score and in many respects it is the most Russian of stories, set in a bustling St Petersburg fair of 1830 with many local folk themes permeating the music (Petrushka fits between The Firebird and The Rite of Spring in a three-year flurry of Stravinsky’s creative genius between 1910-13). Having witnessed Russian dancers tackling similar expectations last week in the Russian Season of the XXI Century programmes (also featuring work by Fokine and Stravinsky) the ENB dancers struggled to convince me of the authenticity that this was nineteenth century Russia. The ensemble dancing of the 1st and 4th scenes at the Shrovetide fair – colourful though the recreation of the Alexandre Benois designs were – was the weakest link of the evening. However, the performances of the three principals – all making their debuts in these roles – were impressive. Fabian Reimar struck a sympathetic chord in the title role as the lovelorn, straw-and-sawdust puppet come to life; Shevelle Dynott was especially two-dimensional (that’s a good thing) as the emotionless Moor; and Nancy Osbaldeston was the most perfect doll-like ballerina. She looked as if she had been plucked from the top of a music box. All three were admirably convincing as puppets magically turned into living beings.

Raymonda is a magical feast of classical ballet, originally created by Marius Petipa – to luscious music by Alexander Glazunov – in 1898 and adapted by Nureyev several times during his career, either in full or – as here – taking the celebratory 3rd Act (where the heroine Raymonda marries her knight Jean de Brienne on his return from the Crusades) as a divertissement, shorn of the earlier story. Sylvie Guillem presented this one-act version at the Royal Opera House in 2003, to mark the tenth anniversary of Nureyev’s passing and the Royal Ballet performed it over Christmas and the New Year 2012/13 as its own tribute.

It seems appropriate that a tribute to one great Russian male dancer should be dominated by outstanding performances by another in today’s generation and Muntagirov came back to his comfort zone by floating through the pas de deux and his variation with consummate ease. Unsurprisingly – after the effort of the earlier work – he tired towards the end but even this fatigue did not dull an excellent performance which – more than anything was a personal tribute to the memory of Nureyev. The female variations were all danced well but it was Daria Klimentová’s filigree precision in the title role that was breathtakingly excellent, her projection and smile beaming with the confidence that this style of dancing is in her DNA. And when one considers that she first performed the role of Raymonda in 1992 – when her current partner was just one – then we can easily see why this is so. In Petrushka, the Ballets Russes tried to convince audiences that animated dolls could come to life but the real magic of this performance is to convince us that Klimentová can really have been dancing Raymonda for over 20 years!

There is no doubt that Tamara Rojo’s artistic antenna is precisely attenuated and her choices of repertoire this year have been unmitigated successes. Next year’s decision to begin the touring season with a rehabilitation of Anne-Marie Holmes’ Le Corsaire – a full-length classical ballet rarely seen in the UK – seems set to keep the success-rate high.

English National Ballet’s A Tribute to Rudolf Nureyev continues at the London Coliseum until Saturdayb 27 July

Graham Watts writes for, Dance Tabs, Dancing Times and other magazines and websites in Europe, Japan and the USA. He is Chairman of the Dance Section of the Critics’ Circle in the UK.

Photos: John Ross

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