Theater ‘t Eilandje, Antwerp, Belgium
by Marc Haegeman
copyright 2009 by Marc Haegeman
What a brilliant idea of the Royal Ballet of Flanders to include a special programme focusing on the history of ballet. It’s no secret that in Belgium classical ballet remains largely uncharted territory for the general public and although the company is celebrating its fortieth anniversary this season, a ballet-minded or informed audience is about as rare in this country as intercommunal agreement.
The formula for “The Evolution of ballet” is as simple as it is efficient. Guided by a speaker, ballet master Gideon Louw, the audience was introduced to a series of dance fragments performed by members of the company, starting with "La Sylphide" and going by way of the greats Petipa, Balanchine, and Forsythe to the present day. A film projection spotlighted on the Ballets Russes, celebrating their 100th anniversary this year – and, as we learned, visitors to Antwerp in 1922.
Casts varied but in all there was plenty to enjoy. The programme opened well with the pas de deux from August Bournonville’s "La Sylphide," especially with two sensitive artists like Giulia Tonelli and Sanny Kleef. Tonelli, who has always been an eye-catching ballerina in recent seasons, gave the Sylph an irresistible attraction as much by her featherlight dancing and vivid acting, as by her indelible stage presence. Kleef looked a promising James as well and one can only hope the company will revive its magnificent production of "La Sylphide," staged by Flemming Flindt twenty years ago, some time in the near future.
The highlight of the evening was without doubt the pas de deux from Act 2 of "Giselle" performed by principals Aki Saito and Wim Vanlessen. One will be hard pressed to find a more convincing rendition of this piece, whether in a gala or in a full-length performance of the ballet. With its snow white floor and snow white backdrop the setup couldn’t have been further away from Giselle’s moonlit romanticism, yet Saito and Vanlessen immediately took the bare stage to their advantage. Without any preparation they both entered in character and by their emotional connection, based on years of partnership and a perfect understanding of the ballet and its characters, they carried the pas de deux to utterly moving heights. Saito’s dancing is devoid of any exaggeration or excesses, but she touched this rare thing which might be defined as “beauty” by the purity of her plastique, the correctness of her style, and the sincerity of her whole being. Vanlessen, too, revealed more about the role than many others do in the whole ballet; his variation was a marvel of polish and virile elegance, but it was at the same time a piercing cry of remorse.
The following pas de deux from "Don Quixote" may be less familiar territory for Flanders, but Yurie Matsuura and Garrett Anderson nonetheless secured a totally convincing performance. Matsuura is another of this company’s remarkable up-and-coming soloists of the last four or five years. She has the soul of ballerina and is a superb classicist with a strong technique. With this "Don Quixote" she not only demonstrated her beautifully polished skills, but also proved she can handle the bravura with ease. Anderson who is a recent recruit coming from Pacific Northwest and San Francisco Ballet looks a very interesting dancer with attractive lines and stage presence to boast. And even if the fireworks from "Don Quixote" aren’t the best number for him, he’s definitely an artist I would like to see more of - and can only hope the company will find the proper opportunities to capitalize on his talent.
It was surprising to see the pas de dix from "Raymonda" performed for the occasion. Pieces like this tend to look awkward on the shoebox stage of this theatre, but the company brought it with plenty of conviction and confidence. The ensemble looked well rehearsed and leading soloists Eva Lombardo and Evgeny Kolesnik grew into their roles in the course of the week.
The second half of the evening, covering the 20th century, was less strong overall, although I’m sure it served its purpose as a taste-maker to some of the most influential choreographers and new developments well enough. A rather long extract from the Ballets Russes film served as an introduction to Diaghilev’s achievements. The fragment danced from Vaslav Nijinsky’s "L’Après-midi d’un Faune" was however too short and too vague to make much of an impact. The duet from Balanchine’s "Apollo" was over before you realized it and suffered from being taken out of context. Fast forward then to the pas de deux from William Forsythe’s "Herman Schmerman," which was good fun in the hands of Altea Nunez and Wim Vanlessen.
The final part consisted of three creations from 2009, which I rather not think of as the outcome of several centuries of ballet development. Instead they can be considered the finale-in-progress of a highly instructive and entertaining evening. The closer, the lighthearted "Evolution" from David Graham Jonathan set once again to John Adams’ "The Chairman Dances," recapitulated the evening by mixing recognizable elements from previous choreographies into a riveting ensemble for ten. The preceding "303," a short solo for Jim De Block also by Jonathan, and "On The Thread," created and performed by Maxime Quiroga, allegedly dealt with even more serious subjects (like near-death experiences in the latter’s case) yet didn’t get much further on the floor than the hackneyed bouts of hyperactivity we’ve been seeing for decades. Both De Block and Quiroga are excellent dancers and they deserve better material.
“The Evolution of ballet” shouldn’t necessarily be limited to a one-time experiment. A programme like this could even have a follow-up in the form of a full-scale gala, complete with orchestra and in a more prestigious venue. It sheds a different light on the company, and if anything, the dancers have proven to be completely on top.
Costume design from Leon Bakst - Bridgeman Art Library - Fine Art Society London.
"On the thread" - Maxime Quiroga. Photo: Sebastian Geiger