Ardani 25th Anniversary Gala
City Center
New York, New York

August 20, 2016
Clay, Tristesse, Le Divertissement du Roi

— by Jerry Hochman

Founded in 1990 by Sergei and Gaiane Danilian, Ardani Artists has produced ballet programs world-wide that enable audiences to see live performances by major international ballet companies as well as programs featuring world-class dancers in pieces that may be outside the audience’s familiarity and the dancers’ comfort zones. For its extended silver anniversary celebration, Ardani has produced galas in various international locations, each bringing together a diverse group of artists to perform unfamiliar but reportedly noteworthy ballets.

The Ardani traveling gala celebration reached City Center on Friday and Saturday nights. Since none of the dances on the program was familiar to anyone but ballet cognoscenti, the draw – aside from those joining in the celebration of Ardani’s accomplishments – was a combination of curiosity and the pedigree and caliber of the dancers scheduled to participate: a bunch from the Mariinsky Ballet, and one each from an assortment of other well-known ballet companies. Publicity materials featured Mariinsky (and American Ballet Theatre) prima ballerina Diana Vishneva, but she injured her foot the day before the first of the two gala performances, and had to be replaced on short notice. Consequently, since unfamiliar ballets are often unfamiliar for a reason, I didn’t hold out much hope of the evening being at all memorable.

I should have known better.

Each of the three ballets was noteworthy in its own way, and the evening as a whole was far superior to the usual gala program of warhorse pas de deux or previews of a company’s upcoming season. Instead of bravura technique and/or athletic tricks, the evening was filled with very fine, relatively new ballets not previously seen in the United States, superbly executed by corps dancers as well as stars. What a concept.

Two of the three dances on this program – Clay and Le Divertissement du Roi – had their initial premieres at the Mariinsky Theater as part of its March, 2015 Creative Workshop of Young Choreographers series. The other, Marcelo Gomes’s Tristesse, premiered several months earlier at the Mikhailovsky Theater as part of Ardani’s Kings of Dance project. I have some minor quibbles about the first two ballets on the program, but the evening’s final piece, Le Divertissement du Roi, is miraculous – one of those rare pieces that you can’t believe could have been a good as it looked and felt as it unfolded in front of your eyes; but it is.

In a universe of contemporary ballet choreography in which little stands out that is not created by a coterie of overly extended 21st century choreographers, Clay is a welcome exception. Choreographed by Vladimir Varnava, who has worked exclusively as a choreographer since 2011, Clay is impeccably constructed, with a consistent theme and energy, and with visual hooks that make it different. And although it’s an ensemble piece, one performance in particular made it sizzle.

The ballet opens to a star-filled universe (lighting by Igor Vints), with the cast of three men and three women assembled in something akin to a celestial conga line. The costumes (by Irina Varnava) blend with the dancers’ bodies as a second skin untainted by color or significant texture, giving the impression that the dancers are blank slates. The intention – to have the dancers present as a grouping of life forms catapulted into the universe as clay building blocks to be molded and developed – is crystal clear, but in an interesting rather than obvious way.

After initially appearing in lockstep, the group – one collective comprised of six separate but coordinated cells – begins to churn, with the dancers’ arms interlocked and cranking like pistons, becoming a vessel traversing stage/space like a celestial locomotive. Eventually the locomotive stops, and the molecule/dancer in front of the line, Zlata Yalinich, breaks off from the pack. As the others move to the background (presumably developing semi-privately), Yalinich evolves into a bionic entity, with every muscle and bone in her body testing itself and its physical properties and capabilities. Unlike choreographic imaginings of the birth of an insect-like life form (e.g., Jerome Robbins’s The Cage; Crystal Pite’s Emergence), the movement here is expansive, not inward. Yalinich gobbles up space in movement chunks, as if every atom in her body is an independent entity moving to its own impulse before her developing mind can gain control over all its disparate elements.

From here the dance proceeds as solos, duets and groups – although abstract, there’s a hint of individual story lines – and from this point the choreography becomes less distinctive. But the initial force of creativity continues to reverberate throughout the presentation.

Not everything in the piece made sense to me. At the ballet’s end, for instance, the dancers re-form the conga line and the lights re-form into stars, making it appear as if this episode was part of a series of transient events with little intended consequence. And the music (unidentified) by Darius Milhaud is at times problematic. Milhaud, who emigrated from France to the United States, was highly influenced by jazz, and consequently it’s no accident that I heard echoes of George Gershwin in some of the excerpts. As refreshing as that connection was to hear, it didn’t seem to fit with Varnava’s stage concept – although I suppose that evolving into an entity with jazzy movement qualities is as valid as anything else.

Whether she’s moving by herself or with a fellow being, Yalinich is the dominant force in the piece. It’s hard to take your eyes off her. But the other two women, although given less time to evolve, are significant presences, and personalities, as well. Victoria Belova (whose name is also spelled Viktoria Bilyova), a tall brunette who, like Yalinich, is a Mariinski coryphée, developed as an irresistible lure (she’s danced the Siren in Balanchine’s The Prodigal Son: I can only imagine); while Yulia Kobzar, a member of the Mariinsky corps who joined the company after a stint with the Eifman Ballet, became the female entity next door. Yuri Smekalov, Maxim Zyusin (both second soloists), and Alexey Nedviga, a member of the corps, rounded out the cast.

Tristesse is a delightful piece choreographed by Marcelo Gomes for himself and three other men, to unidentified Chopin Etudes. If this sounds like it’s an all-male piano ballet on the order of Robbins’s Dances at a Gathering, that wouldn’t be far wrong. If the dance ended before the relationship among the men turned aggressive, it would have been near perfect. As it is, Gomes let it go on too long – but then, many people say that Robbins did the same.

The piece begins with the four men dancing together. They then separate and dance a series of solos as the other three watch (think Robbins’s Fancy Free, without the women). Each solo is a stellar example of free-spirited but focused and exceptional choreography, and each was an impeccably executed tour de force. Juaquin de Luz, Friedemann Vogel, Denis Matvienko (a standout among standouts), and Gomes were each flat out fabulous. And credit must also be given to a fifth man, Dimitri Dover, who played Chopin live – the only live music on the evening’s program.

Following the solos, the men pair off, and the ballet becomes structurally predictable without adding anything new.  The choreography and execution are still vivid and joyful – but the piece should have ended when, at the conclusion of a particular segment involving all of the men, Gomes turns off an imaginary light. But it kept going, appearing to force the last few segments to bring the piece in line with the dance’s title, which translates as “sadness.”  This abrupt change was not fortuitous.

The lone program note indicates that the dance is inspired by French poet Paul Eluard, but that information by itself is not helpful to illuminate the reason for Gomes’s change of focus. However, the artificial-looking ending, though unfortunate, doesn’t detract from the fact that Tristesse is a smorgasbord of exceptional male dancing, and another example of Gomes’s evolution from star dancer to stellar choreographer.

The gala’s final piece, Le Divertissement du Roi, choreographed by Maxim Petrov, is contrived, lacks sufficient variety (at least on paper), and has no discernable story despite labored efforts to manufacture one or more of them. And if this weren’t enough to assure its failure, it lost its star ballerina. But it’s a conceptual and choreographic knockout.

Petrov’s idea was (at least) two-fold: first, to present a ballet as a program of dances might have been presented in Paris in the late 17th Century, at the court of Louis XIV – with, of course, the Sun King as the featured dancer; and second, to do so in a way that takes the piece out of its 17th Century framework and emphasizes ballet’s evolution. Easy.

Every effort was made to ensure relative verisimilitude. Petrov utilized 17th Century sketches for productions at the Royal Academy of Music (and another contemporaneous venue) as projected backdrops, and the costumes (by Tatiana Noginova), whether authentic or not, looked authentic. Most significantly, Petrov selected music by Jean-Philippe Rameau, who, together with François Couperin, were the preeminent French composers of the 18th Century. (Rameau’s 250th birthday celebration was in 2014 – which, probably not coincidentally, was the time that Le Divertissement du Roi was being incubated.)

Rameau’s output post-dated Louis XIV, but the choice fits the ballet as well, if not better, than more majestic/cerebral-sounding baroque pieces by Lully. The selected Rameau music is eminently danceable, but more than that, it’s feather light even when sounding regal, which comports with Petrov’s apparent concept of a royal program of dance that would have been more entertaining than pompous – something that might naturally evolve into ballet enjoyable for the masses – which, of course, is what eventually happens – both in fact, and as presented on stage.

The piece is structured as a seemingly dull (at least to contemporary audiences) entertainment for the king’s pleasure and to impress the assembled nobility, but it evolves from that into something quite different. A master of ceremonies (played with delicious insouciance by Suslan Kulaev) announces the changes of scenes, and the King dances the lead role in each of them. The baroque dances are not reconstructions – they all were choreographed by Petrov to fit the concept – and they’re marvelous examples of baroque style applied with 21st Century sensibility. While they don’t have the scholarly patina of, say, Balanchine’s Le Tombeau du Couperin or Robbins’s The Goldberg Variations, that’s not their point. These aren’t entertaining museum pieces to be transformed or honored. Petrov has choreographed an assemblage of baroque dances fit for a king, as well as for his subjects and their descendants. Each dance in the series is significantly different from the other, each dance is a gem, and each dance is extraordinary fun to watch.

The four Mariinsky corps dancers who join the King’s presentation – Vasily Tkachenko, Denis Zainetdinov, Yevgeny Konovalov, and Andrey Arseniev – execute impeccably, but the King is, not surprisingly, the central focus, and Philipp Stepin, a first soloist and the dancer who originated the role, who filled in for Vishneva, is every bit the dancer king.

It would have been nice to have seen Vishneva dance the role to add an additional level of gender-bending to what already is, to a degree and in part, a sexually adventurous presentation. But Stepin was so good that I forgot about Vishneva – as, it appeared, did the rest of the gala audience.

I have used the word “evolve” frequently in the course of this review, and in a sense, this entire program represents a sort of evolution – of creativity and of previously unrecognized choreographic talent.  In addition to being entertaining, it was an eye-opening evening.  I had not previously had the opportunity to see an Ardani gala before. If this is an example, I look forward to seeing the next one.