Maya Plisetskaya 80th birthday tribute

Sabores, the new show from flamenco dancer Sara Baras, begins in an intimate, almost conversational manner. The dancers saunter on, buttoning jackets and pulling on shoes. The musicians pick up their instruments. Heels begin to drill out the beat, legs to extend into sultry lines. Baras enters with two male soloists. She is a compact, slender-waisted figure with green eyes, dramatic cheekbones and chestnut hair lacquered glossily to her head. As her arms begin their sinuous interplay, her gaze is intense, but her professional frown quickly dissolves into a laugh as she and her partners are overtaken by the dance. The piece is named A fuego lento and it is about challenge, about moves hurled down like gauntlets, answerable only by routines of even fiercer commitment and passion. Later numbers are more reflective. Baras, 34, comes from Cadiz, a windy city whose walls are battered by the sea, and beneath the exuberance of alegria, the local flamenco form, there is something of the loneliness of the place. Typically, pieces begin with the cante, the haunting gypsy vocalisation that tells, invariably, of loss and longing. Handclaps are added and the bailaora dances, her movements the embodiment of the cante. The music builds – guitars, violins, percussion – and the ensemble joins in, hands and wrists flaring, heels stamping like hailstones on a corrugated iron roof. The best moments, though, find Baras alone, levelling that sea-green gaze at us over the taut curve of her arm. She seems to manipulate time and silence. The Spanish call it ‘duende’, the soul-force of flamenco. A cabriole is one of the more spectacular steps in the ballet dancer’s repertoire. Throwing one leg up into the air in front of him, he whips the other up beneath it to make a double beat in the air. When done correctly, there is a dramatic moment of stillness at the top of the jump, but you have to be careful. Hang too luxuriantly in that armchair of spotlit air, and, as the US test pilots used to put it, you screw the pooch. Last week, I watched the Royal Ballet’s Ivan Putrov carry off a fabulous cabriole sequence in his act two variation in Giselle, which he was dancing with Roberta Marquez. In this part of the ballet, he is being forced to dance himself to death by the vengeful spirits of wronged women, and the variation, all huge leaps, expresses his desperation to escape the cold earth. Putrov performed it flawlessly and the following day, he and Marquez appeared in an 80th birthday tribute to the celebrated Bolshoi ballerina Maya Plisetskaya. This was a very ‘new Russia’ event, with much Versace couture and many diamond-studded cellphones in evidence and, as the curtain rose, corporate sponsors’ names flashed on to a screen, surely a first for the Royal Opera House. Plisetskaya herself appeared twice. Still fantastically glamorous – ‘Who does her face?’ the woman behind me breathed in amazement – she walked through brief snatches of her signature ballets to standing ovations. But the occasion was about more than bling and ballet. The Soviet system made Plisetskaya a star, but it also held her prisoner. As a child, she saw her father summarily shot by Stalin’s henchmen, and it was later made clear to her that her relatives, many of them senior figures in the ballet establishment, could expect no mercy should she ever consider defecting to the West. Given this grim backdrop, her career is all the more extraordinary. So it was a resonant evening, at many levels. Putrov and Marquez’s Giselle pas de deux came early in the tribute programme and it was immediately apparent that Putrov was going for broke. His first cabriole was high, the next even higher. The takeoff was perfect, but a moment later, he was on the deck, his leg twisted beneath him, desperately signalling for the curtain to be brought down. The incident was a reminder that in ballet, dancers – and particularly male dancers – take real physical risks. In 2003, an agonising knee injury ended the career of Royal Ballet principal Johan Persson, and in 2004, English National Ballet star Thomas Edur fell on stage and snapped his Achilles tendon; his career was only saved by surgery and a year of rehabilitation. Very few dancers avoid injury: sooner or later, and with varying degrees of seriousness, everyone screws the pooch. Fingers crossed, then, for Ivan Putrov.

Luke Jennings

The Observer, Sunday 19 February 2006