I was fortunate enough to see Maris Liepa dance his most iconic role, Crassus, in “Spartacus”, at the Coliseum; very theatre where this gala took place. It was the early ‘70s and one had to run the gauntlet of Soviet Weekly sellers and pro-Israeli demonstrators even to get into the theatre. There were threats of white mice and tin tacks being loosed on the stage and, in the midst of this all, the four powerhouses of Vasiliev, Maximova, Timofeyevna and Liepa danced their greatest roles.
Liepa was not to be accorded a feted retirement and died tragically early at only 52. It was particularly poignant that his son Antis should impart this fact just a day after one of the greatest exponents of the role of Spartacus, Irek Mukhamedov, had danced again on that very stage at the same age at which Liepa died. Whilst there have been one or two notably dancers who managed to make Spartacus their own after Vasiliev, no one has had the same impact on the role of Crassus. It is not always apparent from recordings, but Liepa trod the fine line between caricature and downright camp to become the incarnation of calculating evil and cowardice as Grigorovich and librettist Volkov intended. But there was far more to the man and the dancer than that stark blonde mop and kohl rimmed eyes.
This, the second Liepa gala that London has seen recently, started each act with wonderful fragments of films, rather crudely assembled but fascinating nonetheless. The opening montage reminded us that he was also a fine classical dancer who tackled all of the major danseur noble roles. The latter, opening the second act, was an extraordinary film from the 1960s of him dancing as a bird, a white spattered Seagull, straight from Chekov, as far from the tough guy Roman as can be imagined.
As for the live dancing: it was an evening that enabled the audience to peek in on a box of jewels, some familiar, some new, but each sparkling and fresh and danced with total commitment and panache.
Sayaka Takuda and Andrei Batalov opened with a punchy “Corsaire” pas de deux, the latter with a jump worthy of envy. Takuda was technically on form but hasn’t quite mastered the power required of a ballerina.
This was followed by a pas de deux from “Harlequinade”, a clunky old war horse from Petipa and Drigo where one suspects that the party pieces are the only sections worthy of modern revival. That said, we were fortunate in being able to catch the stunning Whitney Jensen from Boston Ballet, a blonde bombshell with prodigious technique and a fair bit of panache to polish it off; definitely one to watch for in the future. Her partner Paulo Arrais was rather relegated to the role of porter, which he managed with aplomb, although he did get a chance to display some stunning batterie.
Without doubt, the highlight of the evening was the all too brief “All is Going Wrong”, a solo choreographed by Morihiro Ivata and danced by Mikhail Lobukhin to a song by the incomparable Vysotsky. Little known outside the Soviet Union, Vysotsky was a mixture of Jacques Brel and Leonard Cohen, an actor, poet and singer who occupied a liminal space between acclaimed performer and open critic of Soviet society.
It was with something of a wrench that we were brought back to the world of classical ballet with the Black Swan pas de deux with Maria Semyenachenko and Denis Rodkin. Nicely done, if a little lacking in attack.
The first act ended with a long section from Petit’s “Pique Dame” and another chance to see Ilze Liepa in her haunting portrayal of the Countess, more than ably accompanied by Dimitri Gudanov. Ilze Liepa is an extraordinary willow of a woman who is one minute convincing as an octogenarian and the next looks half her forty nine years. Her wafting arms seems to be made of rubber; then she suddenly snaps into a rigid harridan made of steel as she cheats the unwitting Herman in what must be the best written three card trick of all.
With the opening of the second act, it was back to the classics with the grand pas de deux from “Nutcracker”. What a relief to see it performed so beautifully after the hours forced upon us by the Schaufuss Ballet last week. A real tear jerker.
Maria Semenyachenko reappeared in “Sad Bird”, an impressionist solo with music by Ravel. She was also a stunningly costumed bird with pliant arms and back who had no difficulty in holding the whole stage.
Paulo Arrais and Whitney Jensen partnered each other in a composition by the former to music by Philip Glass with the inevitable silent beginning, not aided by a sudden kerfuffle in the auditorium. Not much was new in this, although it was well executed.
Dimitri Gudanov took the stage next in a solo “Dreams About Japan”. They were good dreams by and large with a score by triumvirate of Japanese composers. It was a compelling work, although Gudanov looked tired towards the end and struggled to keep his balance in his final pose.
Not content with her earlier stage-grabbing appearances, Ilze Liepa regaled us with an extraordinary work by Smoriginas. Reminiscent of a decadent version of some of Moiseyev’s folk dances, Liepa appears in profile, looking for all the world like a drag queen impersonating Barbara Cartland – all floating pink and sophistication. When she turned, she revealed her other ‘half’, a besuited male. It is said that if one views one side on one’s face only it will reveal the person that the world sees and the other half the person that really exists. Well Liepa demonstrated this admirably when she proceeded to dance with herself, incredibly managing to create two completely different characters with each half of her body. This was an eerie piece that would not have looked out of place in a Berlin cabaret of the 1930s.
It was back to the familiar, a cracking rendition of the “Don Quixote” pas de deux danced by Ludmila Konovalova and Mikhail Lobukhin. Konovalova had absolute mastery of balance and knocked off some impressive fouettés to boot, in an evening which was littered with them.
The evening was notable for the soft-footedness of the men who all landed as light as feathers.
It is to be hoped that a sizeable sum will have been raised for the Liepa Foundation: if it was in proportion to the enjoyment provided, it would be ample indeed.