International Ballet Super Stars Gala 2019
26-27 October 2019
Produced by KL Dance Works
Review by Bilqis Hijjas
People often ask me for recommendations for going to the ballet. Tickets aren’t cheap, and the most tutu-minded among us can be confused by the shifting landscape.
Artistic director Choong Wan Chin has just staged her 4th international ballet gala, and her 10th major production, at Istana Budaya, featuring eight international ballet professionals flying in from Australia, Canada, Germany and the USA. The Dance Works ballet gala is a sure bet, not just for the sheer starpower on display (the gala in 2014 featured Yuan Yuan Tan, singlehandedly the brightest Asian star in the ballet universe), but because of the diversity and sensitivity of its programming. Each foreign performer appears twice, and the ten items on display this year moved from Classical ballet with a capital C, through modern-day reinterpretations of story ballets, to contemporary items that still require all the physical faculties that ballet dancers have to offer. The selections also offered the whole emotional texture of ballet, shifting from grandeur to romance to pathos, before landing squarely on unabashed celebration.
To cap it all off, the Dance Works ballet gala provides unprecedented exposure for local dancers. A number of young hopefuls, boys as well as girls, are chosen from an open audition to perform supporting corps de ballet roles behind the stars. Wan Chin drills them to an international standard, but also stays well within their capacity – the local dancers always look comfortable and confident, never striving to do the impossible. This an invaluable opportunity for the young Malaysians not only to stand on the same stage as the superhuman individuals who light up their their Instagram feeds, but also to take morning class with them, getting an up-close look at the daily discipline that lies behind a professional dancer’s career.
Australian Ballet principal Kevin Jackson and senior artist Benedicte Bemet took up the next pas de deux with Cinderella – not the stodgy mid-20th century version, but an update from 2003 by Alexei Ratmansky, current global ballet darling who is resident choreographer at American Ballet Theatre. This is, I believe, the first time Ratmansky’s work has been seen live in Malaysia. He has transformed this standard falling-in-love duet, keeping the pointe shoes and the bouffant dress, but giving it off-kilter balances, swinging lifts, and odd bent-kneed positions. Bemet brought great sense of breath to her role as Cinderella, and Jackson handled the tricky partnering with aplomb.
The next duet shifted back to classicism, with a virtuosic selection from La Esmeralda (the original is from 1844) featuring the variations regularly seen in ballet competitions. Ksenia Ovsyanick and Dinu Tamazlacaru of Staatsballett Berlin displayed their Russian technical credentials, she with sky-high extensions and he with beautiful long lines, backed up by a very competent quartet of Malaysian dancers. Although the fouette sequence got the better of her, the leggy Ovsyanick made an impressively sulky Esmeralda (in keeping with the character from the mostly-forgotten original story) who barely had to try to kick the tamborine she held high above her head.
But the next item was the one people had been waiting for: the Cuban dancers Adiarys Almeida and Taras Domitro in a passionate duet from Carmen. Ballet is not kind to the older dancer, and in their mid 30s Domitro and Almeida may be nearing the end of their run. But Carmen is a ballet well suited to the more mature performer, requiring emotional scope that younger dancers can’t master. This version by Alberto Alonso trumpets the appeal of the Cuban style: unabashed drama and exaggerated movements, founded on rock-steady technique. It was the first Carmen I’ve ever seen that I actually thought was sexy. Most Carmens just go through the motions, but when Almeida throws back her head in Domitro’s embrace, or thrusts a flexed foot hard into point as Domitro lifts her above his head, it has all the urgency and explosive power of the real thing.
After intermission came a surprise: a duet by Sugawara and Boutin to delicate Chopin Nocturnes, but in full contemporary mode, with white baggy pants, feet in white socks, a messy bun for Sugawara, and moody lighting. The two rolled, slipped along the floor, curled legs around each other. Sugawara, who had been dutifully correct in Diana & Actaeon, now seemed in her element, her long torso demonstrating the undulating articulation which challenges more straight-up-and-down ballet dancers. This item felt to me like a gateway drug into contemporary dance. You were trained to do that, the duet whispered tantalisingly to the little ballet girls and boys in the audience, but you might also do this.
The two Australians returned with a surge of tutu and tights, in the aptly-named Grand Pas Classique. Benedicte Bemet brought warmth and charm to this otherwise formulaic work, and Kevin Jackson discretely refrained from showboating, letting his solid technique do the work. But the crowd was in the mood for virtuosity: when Bemet held her one-footed balances for an extra split second, and when she crushed her brief fouette sequence, we all screamed like little girls.
Ksenia Ovsyanick followed with a black-gowned contemporary solo to the sound of dark Eastern European wailing, but the crowd preferred her partner Dinu Tamazlacaru in his solo ‘Les Bourgeois’, essentially acting out Jacques Brel’s naughty little song. Clad in pants, white button-down and tie, Tamazlacaru’s shrugging, hands-in-pockets insouciance perfectly suited the comic nuance of the music. We laughed and yelled in appreciation as he tossed off with rakish grace the beautiful technical tricks embedded in the choreography.
And suddenly the night was almost at an end, with Adiarys Almeida and Taras Domitro returning with the grand pas de deux from Don Quixote. Domitro, who had been somewhat overwhelmed by his partner in Carmen, came into his own with the role of Basilio, twitching his shirt open over his chest, and giving vent to a magnificent sequence of jetes en tournant, devouring space with each enormous mid-air split. Almeida had plenty of panache, and showed her professional maturity during a testing sequence of fouette turns. Close to the start, she wobbled dangerously off balance; in the audience, our hearts collectively rose in our throats. But not only did she then snatch back control, she finished with a splendid series of bravura spins, switching her focus point 45 degrees with each revolution, to deafening cheers from the audience. It almost made you think she had wobbled on purpose.
All this, and the organizers still got the audience in and out of the elaborate doorways of Istana Budaya in 2 hours. With its wedding-cake decorations and capacious stage, Istana Budaya is an ideal venue for the ballet gala. But tales of poor maintenance at our National Palace of Culture abound, and were evident in the limited stage lighting for the ballet gala. No organizer should have to spend tens of thousands of ringgit to bring in rental lights, just because the venue’s own stocks are unusable. Little wonder that other dance productions, operating on a more limited budget, fight shy of this space.
But it’s lovely to get dressed up for a big night at the ballet, and to come away feeling delighted and perfectly satisfied. May the wonders that Choong Wan Chin manages to conjure never cease.
All photos courtesy of KL Dance Works.
Bilqis Hijjas is the founding editor of Critics Republic. A producer, lecturer and community organizer in contemporary dance, she believes the main purpose of criticism is to enhance the audience’s appreciation of art.
Full disclosure: I received free tickets to attend the ballet gala.