Opera House, Hamburg, Germany; July 13, 2014

Maggie Foyer

Nijinsky Gala 2014 (02). Artem Ovcharenko and Olga Smirnova in 'Lady of the Camelias'.  Photo © Holger Badekow

Artem Ovcharenko and Olga Smirnova in ‘Lady of the Camelias’.
Photo © Holger Badekow

July 13 was a great night for Germany. Hamburg Ballet celebrated their 40th Nijinsky Gala, oh… and Germany won the World Cup! John Neumeier announced the score at the curtain calls to much jubilation. The Gala is not for the faint hearted. It is a gargantuan feast of quality art that makes demands on both audience and dancers. This year, in an ironic twist, it is ‘Nijinsky XL’.

The evening found its artistic core in the second act devoted to one of Neumeier’s best loved ballets, “Lady of the Camellias”. With neatly structured links to create a fluid transition, each extract featured a different pair of lovers. Bolshoi dancers, Olga Smirnova and Artem Ovcharenko touched hearts: he looked so absurdly young and she was so madly in love. They bagged Act II of the ballet, where the tragedy is dressed in summery white and sunhats. These world class dancers were perfectly at ease in the elegant choreography. Smirnova never put a foot wrong and Ovcharenko’s virtuoso solo was brilliant, but it was the strength of their emotions that made this performance so memorable. Polina Seminova from ABT and Matej Urban, from the Bavarian State Ballet danced the opening duet. She had the world weary air of the established courtesan but with little hint of future surrender and Urban too was a little reserved. It was a promising debut that will certainly build emotionally as they grow into the roles. The third act had the benefit of seasoned performers in Anna Laudere and Edvin Revazov who gave a performance that reached searing levels of anguish as the tragedy draws to its inevitable conclusion. Viewing an abbreviated version of the ballet with three different interpretations was a unique and thought-provoking experience.

The programme opened with the “Petrushka Variations”. A tricky work, it was danced the previous night by the company. At the Gala, the students proved their readiness for the profession in a performance that was well up to the high standards the music and choreography demanded and was delivered with great glee.The many classical duets gave opportunities to see a number of the company’s soloists in action. Top choice was Silvia Azzoni and Alexandre Riabko who reached the heights and plumbed the depths in the final duet from John Cranko’s “Onegin”. Two of the company’s finest, they fulfilled all expectations in the quality of their dancing and their surrender to the drama. Azzoni, alone on stage as Onegin flees, and with every nerve-end raw and quivering, brought the moment to life for the rapt audience. Neumeier’s “Orpheus” impressed in a more understated manner. A duet where the pair cannot gaze into each other’s eyes will always make an interesting concept. The choreography is intriguing, offering psychological depth and wresting compelling performances from Otto Bubeníček and Hélène Bouchet.

I was looking forward to seeing Andrei Merkuriev, one of the current Bolshoi stars on an unstoppable upward trajectory. However his solo, “Adagio”, choreographed by Alexei Miroshnichenko was sadly something of a non-event. Miroshnichenko is himself a choreographer who is attracting interest in the US as well as Russia but despite Merkuriev’s compelling presence it didn’t seem to find a focus. However galas are notoriously difficult platforms to assess a new work.

Nijinsky Gala 2014 (01). Alina Cojocaru and Yonah Acosta in the 'Le Corsaire' pas de deux.  Photo © Holger Badekow

Alina Cojocaru and Yonah Acosta in the ‘Le Corsaire’ pas de deux.
Photo © Holger Badekow

“Le Corsaire”, that staple of gala fare had the added frisson of guest star Yonah Acosta: a first viewing for many in the audience. He was dancing with Cojocaru an established favourite and they made an impressive couple. She was her radiant self, lighting up the stage on every entrance while Acosta threw himself into a series of phenomenal jumps that hovered at great height. An unfortunate delay in returning to the stage for his solo led conductor, Simon Hewitt, to jump the gun and start without him playing the variation music to an empty stage. Thankfully Acosta returned second time around in a solo of truly spectacular steps some of which still don’t have names. Cojocaru matched up with a sparkling solo and keenly musical fouettés to close on rapturous applause.

In gentler mode she also danced the duet from “Spring and Fall” with Zdenek Konvalina another guest from the English National Ballet. Set to Dvorak’s wistful “Serenade for Strings” it accentuated the lyricism and aesthetic beauty of line that both these dancers possess.Olga Smirnova made a welcome return in Balanchine’s “Diamonds pas de deux” from “Jewels” danced with Semyon Chudin. The Russian companies have a distinct take on Mr B’s ballets. The bloodline is clear: originating from an American of Russian birth the works return as a Russian take on American ballet but rather than a simple recycle, a further interpretive spiral is created which is never a bad thing. The dancers, proud and strong, were magnificent bringing an aristocratic flourish to the ports de bras that embellished the modern minimalism.

Thiago Bordin leaves the company this season to join NDT in Holland. Neumeier, the company and an army of fans gave him a tremendous send-off. Not only a great dancer, he is also an artist of intense sensitivity always able to balance vulnerability with strength. This quality came to the fore in the closing section of “The Seagull”. As Kostja, he renews his association with the disillusioned and resigned Nina – another fine performance from Hélène Boucher – and leaves us with the bitter sweet image of the sad young man tearing the wings from a paper seagull.

Helene Bouchet and Thiago Bordin in 'The Seagull'.  Photo © Holger Badekow

Helene Bouchet and Thiago Bordin in ‘The Seagull’.
Photo © Holger Badekow

Another company stalwart, Anna Polikarpova, retires this season but she will still be part of the family as she takes up a teaching post at the feeder school. Her final performance was as Romola in “Nijinsky” a role she created in 2000.  Russian born Polikarpova was a soloist at the Mariinsky before joining the Hamburg Ballet in 1992 where she has danced leading roles from across the repertoire. She was nominated for the Le Benois de la Danse in 1996, for her performance of Marguerite in “Lady of the Camellias”. The complex character of Romola enabled her to show her formidable dramatic gifts portraying the shallow, unthinking socialite as well as the caring, loyal wife. In Alexandre Riabko as Nijinsky she had a partner to match both in technique and in characterisation; a fitting close to an illustrious career.

In his opening speech Neumeier noted the cultural debt we owe to Russia, and there was plenty of evidence of this debt throughout the evening. He made a plea for continued exchange in the current aggressive climate. The finale to Tchaikovsky’s “Little Russia” reinforced the point with Polikarpova and Carsten Jung leading from the front.