National Theater, Taipei, Taiwan; April 18, 2015

David Mead

Ulrik Birkkjær and Ashley Bouder in Flower Festival at Genzano. Photo Art Wave

Ulrik Birkkjær and Ashley Bouder in Flower Festival at Genzano.
Photo courtesy Art Wave

Taipei’s annual Ballet Star Gala, organised by Wang Tzer-shing (王澤馨), goes from strength to strength. Despite having had more than a few problems with availability, Wang again put together an impressive programme. The Taipei ballet lovers responded, with audiences up yet again, the Saturday evening performance being almost sold out.

Wang explained how the issues started with the timing of this year’s gala (it’s usually in January but this April weekend was all the National Theater could offer). Spring is a busy time in the ballet world. For many companies it’s a busy performance time, while most of the others, and the two American giants in particular are busy preparing for major May seasons.

Just when she thought it was all sorted out, Wang then lost four dancers in the build-up (Sarah Lamb and Steven McRae from The Royal Ballet and Vanessa Zahorian and Davit Karapetyan from San Francisco Ballet), all required to substitute for others who were injured at home. As it happened, the replacements provided some of the best moments of the evening.

Ulrik Birkkjær in La Sylphide.  Photo courtesy Art Wave

Ulrik Birkkjær in La Sylphide.
Photo courtesy Art Wave

Two of them, New York City Ballet principal Ashley Bouder and The Royal Danish Ballet’s Ulrik Birkkjær joined forces for two Bournonville pas de deux. Amazingly, Birkkjær spent just one night in Taipei, flying out immediately after dancing in Swan Lake in Copenhagen, returning on Sunday night following the second show.

It’s not often in a pas de deux that the man gets to out dance the woman, but that certainly happens in that from Flower Festival at Genzano, which opened the evening. Birkkjær was in sparkling form, dealing with the fiendishly tricky batterie as though it was the easiest thing in the world. Bouder, usually an excellent performer, was strangely unconvincing. The steps may have been Bournonville but it didn’t feel like it. There was a lack of ballon, her footwork was not as clean as her partner’s, and she has a tendency to lift her leg too high, spoiling the line of the choreography. It was much the same in the pas de deux from La Sylphide, which always suffers a little in galas thanks to all the mime and a lack of context. With New York City Ballet to dance La Sylphide next month, one hopes Taipei was a temporary aberration.

Birkkjær was very good, but the classical highlight of the evening was Xiomara Reyes of American Ballet Theatre and Gonzalo Garcia of NYCB, both also late replacements, in the balcony pas de deux from Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet. It was very, very nicely done and totally believable. It brought a tingle to the spine and a tear to the eye.

Xiomara Reyes and Gonzalo Garcia in the balcony pas de deux from MacMillan's Romeo and Juliet.  Photo Art Wave

Xiomara Reyes and Gonzalo Garcia in the balcony pas de deux from MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet.
Photo courtesy Art Wave

It’s an odd thing, but although Juliet is supposed to be a teenager, the ballet role always seems to be best danced by a mature performer. And Reyes, now 42 and due to retire from ABT at the end of the forthcoming New York season, was perfect.

When Juliet first comes down from the balcony, many dancers make the big mistake of making eye contact with their Romeo immediately. That is not how it should be. Juliet’s heart is racing. She is mixed up emotionally – simultaneously excited and scared, maybe even a little embarrassed, certainly shy – and she just doesn’t know what to do. So she looks the other way – or at least she should. That is just what Reyes did and just what she communicated. There was plenty more, not least the little shrug of the shoulders and slightly self-conscious smile, sort of saying, “Oh, go on then…,” when she finally succumbs to Romeo’s overtures.

As Romeo, Gonzalo was as explosive in the early minutes as he should be, demonstrating his feelings for Juliet through a series of leaps and turns. And all the partnering was spot on and made to look easy too.

The couple combined again for Balanchine’s Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux, although it generally lacked the sparkle it usually carries.

Other classical contributions included a most ethereal Svetlana Lunkina (National Ballet of Canada) in the Act II pas de deux from Giselle, danced with Igor Kolb (Mariinsky Ballet); and a nicely sultry Dorothée Gilbert (Paris Opera Ballet) in the Act II party variation from MacMillan’s Manon. Lunkina pulled at everyone’s heartstrings again in Fokine’s The Dying Swan and deserved every second of the prolonged applause. Her so expressive arms and back will linger long in the memory. Having live music (Huang Ying-yuan (黃盈媛) on cello and Cai Ming-rui (蔡明叡) on piano) helped a lot too.

As usual, the Taipei gala included a few more contemporary and unusual offerings, including two choreographers’ takes on L’Après midi d’un faune.

Raphael Coumes-Marquet and Jan Casier in David Dawson's Fuan(e).  Photo Art Wave

Raphael Coumes-Marquet and Jan Casier of Dresden Semperoper Ballett
in David Dawson’s Fuan(e).
Photo courtesy Art Wave

Dmitry Pimonov’s interpretation is closest to the Nijinsky version. A solo, danced here by Igor Kolb, it is essentially a less stylised updating of the original that focuses solely on the faun’s feelings, although there are repeated movement references to the original, most notably through hand and arm gestures. It has the same mood and feeling, much of which probably comes from the use of the original Debussy music, but if he is dreaming of nymphs, they are in his imagination only.

More interesting, and more contemporary, is a view provided by David Dawson. Performed on a stripped-down stage and to a later Debussy arrangement for two pianos, played live and hauntingly by Cai Pei-juan (蔡佩娟) and Cai Ming-rui (蔡明叡), Faun(e) is an unbridled joy.

Dawson captures perfectly the essence of the score, the sense of desire, of coming of age, and of the awakening of a new generation. An older man dances to the music. In the fading late afternoon light, it seems, alone with his thoughts and reminiscences, the steps coming from his memories. He is joined by a younger man, who he leads, but who slowly takes over as his
partner, mentor perhaps, slips into the background.

Raphael Coumes-Marquet and Jan Casier from Dresden Semperoper Ballett swirled around each other in a flood of steps. There is a sense of gravity, that this is an important moment for both, but also that it’s a time for celebration as lives move on. You could have heard a pin drop so rapt were the audience; and rightly too.

Casier and Coumes-Marquet also shone in the world premiere of Proven Lands by Czech choreographer and fellow Semperoper principal dancer Jiří Bubeníček. Like Faun(e), the dance hints at narrative and memory. Perhaps the clue lies in the lyrics to Manhattan Serenade, which provides some of the music. The choreography is a little quirky, with much use made of the hats the two men wear. Best of all, though, is knack Bubeníček has of creating images and little moments that linger in the memory.

Raphael Coumes-Marquet and Jan Casier in Jiří Bubeníček's new work, Proven Lands.  Photo Art Wave

Raphael Coumes-Marquet and Jan Casier in Jiří Bubeníček’s Proven Lands.
Photo courtesy Art Wave

Dorothée Gilbert in Alles Waltzer. Photo courtesy Art Wave

Dorothée Gilbert in Alles Waltzer.
Photo courtesy Art Wave

Again impressive was also Gilbert who sparkled like a glass of best champagne in a lively solo from Renato Zanella’s Alles Walzer. Her long limbs and slightly cheeky smile suit the choreography perfectly, and in her male-type grey suit, she filled the huge stage. And what wonderful balances, held as if suspended on a bed of air, plus comfortably the best fouettés of the night.

Also danced was Pimonov’s somewhat quirky but largely forgettable Solo, danced by Kolb, and Iana Salenko (Staatsballett Berlin) in If… by Arshak Ghalumyan.

Daniil Simkin and Iana Salenko in La Pluie.  Photo Artwave

Daniil Simkin and Iana Salenko
in Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s La Pluie.
Photo courtesy Art Wave

ABT’s Daniil Simkin is a familiar and hugely popular presence at the Taipei gala. Best of his three contributions, alongside Salenko, was La Pluie by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, whose Streetcar Named Desire for Scottish Ballet was recently such a hit in London. Set to the Aria da capo from Bach’s Goldberg Variations, it’s a gem of a dance that calls for grace and control. As it constantly moves and swirls it is starkly beautiful. In the nude-coloured barest of costumes that made them look naked, the couple were captivating. The dance is constantly moving and swirling. It’s fluid, dynamic and starkly beautiful.

Back to the classical, and this year Simkin also partnered Boston Ballet’s Misa Kuranaga, who thrilled audiences in 2014 with her sparklingly crisp footwork. And she wowed again as an absolutely sublime Odette in the White Swan pas de deux from Swan Lake.

The couple also danced the closing grand pas de deux from Don Quixote. Simkin can spin and leap like few others, and he did just that, bringing plenty of predictable whoops and hollers from the excitable audience. I just wish he would cut out those downright ugly gymnastic backbends, though.

Kuranaga started off deliciously, full of Spanish allure. He turns were generally as spiky and sharp as one expects. Unfortunate, though, her fouettés, after a bright start, suddenly took off downstage left at quite a rate. Surely she wasn’t spooked by the sudden and very loud rhythmic clapping of the audience?

Taipei doesn’t get that much top quality ballet, so all credit to Wang for another excellent, varied evening. Roll on 2016!