June 15, 2014

When Kenneth's Friends Came to Dance

When I first found out about Finnish National Ballet's end-of-season ballet gala "Kenneth & Friends," I was over the moon... Tamara Rojo would dance in Helsinki! Oh my goddess! Friedemann Vogel from Stuttgart Ballet! Maria Kochetkova! Not to mention the divine Isabelle Ciaravola! As well as FNB's own beautiful dancers. I was doing a happy dance in my living room - until I realised that my studio's spring show was going to be on the same weekend. Imagine my disappointment... I had missed Tamara Rojo once before, when she guest danced in Manon. I did not want to miss her again, not Ciaravola, not any of it. But I had committed myself to our group, choreography and performance. You don't desert your company, and you don't skip a show just because. Even if it means missing the most glamorous ballet event of the season. Then, just as I had come to terms with the unfortunate timing, I got lucky. Our performance was scheduled to Sunday evening. I got an invite for the gala on Saturday. I was back doing my happy dance!

It was the most amazing weekend. We had the warmest May since ever, with temperatures well into heat wave degrees. Every tree and bush blooming. The scent of lilacs drifting in the summer breeze... I was walking towards the theatre, Saturday morning, when it hit me just how lucky I am. This is the real life! Sweating in a dance studio, getting ready for our one and only stage/dress rehearsal, cues and lights, two run-throughs... Then, sitting outside, having coffee with friends, enjoying the warm sun and conversation. I got home just in time to change; a vintage-feel black-and-bronze cocktail dress, bare legs and high-heeled sandals. It's very casual here in Finland, even at gala events, but I do enjoy getting all dressed up.

The Gala

Edita Rauserova and Wilfried Jacobs in Sherezade. Choreography by Kenneth Greve.
The Finnish National Ballet. Photography (c) Jack Devant.

I have a seat in eighth row, not quite in the middle, but close enough. It's hot, summer has made its way into the theatre. Many are using their program leaflets as impromptu fans, myself included. Then, lights dimming, and guest conductor Graham Bond takes his place in front of the orchestra. Applause. The evening begins with Kenneth Greve's ballet Sherezade, to the music by Rimsi-Korsakov. The stage is filled with a glittering pas de deux corps, dressed in tutu & harem-pant costumes, as is tradition for oriental-themed ballets. The principal ballerina looks glorious in her glitzy golden outfit. Edita Rauserova and Wilfried Jacobs (her dangerously dashing suitor) spare nothing in their passionate performances. Their pas de deux is full of high jumps and even higher above-head lifts. Some of the elements make me think of ice pair skating.


Three Princes and One Swan

You know it's going to be a special night when the artistic director welcomes the audience, then rushes backstage to quick-change into a prince's costume. What makes it so interesting: Kenneth Greve retired from the stage six years ago. I was told he worked very hard to get back into performing shape. And I've seen Mr. Greve once or twice in class, practicing or leading rehearsal - and he always seemed to be in good shape. But performing on stage, with invited world-class dancers, in front of an audience that has never seen you dance live... That must have been unnerving. I certainly felt a bit nervous. I am familiar with Kenneth Greve, The Artistic Director, not Greve, The Principal Dancer. But that he is, with every step, saut and expression.

Friedemann Vogel (with Kenneth Greve in the back) in Swan Lake.
Choreography by Kenneth Greve (based on Petipa). The Finnish National Ballet.
Photography (c) Jack Devant.

Desislava Stoeva and Kenneth Greve in Swan Lake.
Choreography by Kenneth Greve. Photography (c) Jack Devant.


It's Swan Lake's iconic pas de deux, or in this case pas de trois. Rothbart is showing off Odile, luring Siegfried into their seductive web. There's is back and forth, Siegfried doubting, almost resisiting, but then succumbing. Men... How could he not distinguish his beloved Odette from Odile? FNB's newcomer Desislava Stoeva danced the part of Odile. She has got the long legs and lines (when you're partnered by 1.96 cm tall Greve, you can't be short), but I was not all that impressed. Although Stoeva did send off some Odile-vibes, I feel that this kind of evening would have called for a ballerina with more sensuality and star quality. Of course, a dancer is always a work in progress. Stoeva has both time and talent, and I'm very interested to see what future performances will reveal. Meanwhile, big stars were lining up behind curtains... And one of them made an early surprise appearance as Greve's double: Friedemann Vogel. Oh my god. That man's last name (German for bird) really suits his ballon and elevation! It's also what I love about galas: Unexpected fun. Why have just one prince when you can have two? Or three, as the Russian Aleksei Timofejev joined the princely team. Jumps, leaps, turns! And dare I say, I was very impressed by Greve's big a pirouette à la seconde.

Diana and Actaeon
Maria Baranova and Aleksey Timofejev in Diana and Acteon. Choreography: Agrippina Vaganova.
Photography (c) Jack Devant.
Agrippina Vaganova's choreography is classic competition fare, and I have seen my share. It's an extremely difficult pas de deux, where audiences have come to expect bravura technique. We Double, even triple fouetté pirouettes, and jumps that make you gasp... Aleksei Timofejev from the Mariinsky Ballet certainly delivered. FNB's young principal Maria Baranova is perhaps not in her best form this evening. Her technique is secure, she makes no mistakes, but her dancing feels a bit restrained. I have seen Baranova shine and sparkle before, and I expected more bravura skill from her. Still, a solid performance and a fine pairing.

The Golden Cherry

Artists of the Finnish National Ballet taking their bows. In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated.
Choreography by William Forsythe. Photography (c) Jack Devant.

Next up: A thrilling excerpt from one of my favorite ballets, Forsythe's In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated. I've seen it danced many times by FNB's dancers, but tonight's energy was incredible. Maybe it was the combined magic of early summer, end-of-season, and all those visiting stars in class... Whatever it was, it blew me out of my seat. The angular and sharp, yet sensual movement. What I love about Forsythe's choreography is that you cannot just focus on the soloist or pas de deux. Something is always happening, in the side lines and shadows. Dancers coming in, posing, showing off their mad skill (as the piece calls for it), leaving, coming back again. If you're in luck, you might catch a member of the corps out-dancing the principals - even if it's just a moment. Tonight was Kailey Kaba's turn. Her perfectly aligned, fearless quintuple was awesome - and not missed by the audience. I have noticed her before, she has long, luxurious lines... And a kind of movement quality that suits Forsythe's piece very well. Kailey Kaba definitely goes on my list of Dancers to Watch.

Oh Romeo..

Petia Ilieva and Friedemann Vogel in Romeo and Juliet. Choreography by John Cranko. Photography (c) Jack Devant.

After Thom Willem's thunderous electronic score, classical music to our ears: Sergei Prokovief's Romeo and Juliet. The famous balcony pas de deux, choreographed by John Cranko. And who better to portray Romeo's boyish charm than Friedemann Vogel? Oh my... He is utterly convincing, in every tender gesture and adoring smile. Vogel leaps like a cat, flies like a bird and has every woman (and probably quite a few men) sighing... But on stage, he has eyes only for his Juliet, danced by FNB's own étoile Petia Ilieva. The beautiful Ilieva is equally believable in her portrayal of a lovestruck teenager. Together, they produce some truly dreamy dancing. Magic.


La Rojo!

The moment we have all been waiting for. In a night filled with stars, Rojo's shines perhaps the brightest. English National Ballet's Artistic Director is here to dance Kitri, and I was expecting a quick solo variation, to a standard blue backdrop. Instead we are treated to a long excerpt from Kitri's & Basilio's wedding, completed by FNB's corps de ballet and soloist dancers. This version of Don Quixote has been staged by POB's Patrice Bart (after Petipa), and it has been in FNB's rep for ages (can't remember the exact run, so I'm going with ages). I like that it has real Spanish flavour, fandangos and boleros (choreographed by José de Udaeta), even though they seem strangely at odds with the classic Bridemaids variations. But that is ballet for you. Tutus show off legs and technique, never mind about dress-historical accuracy. Ballet is fantasy, and we are all ready and willing to escape. As Tamara Rojo steps onto the stage, there is electricity... And immediate welcome applause. She owns the stage, and the audience.

Frans Valkama and Tamara Rojo in Don Quixote.
Photography (c) Jack Devant / Finnish National Ballet.
Tamara Rojo as Kitri. Photography (c) Jack Devant. The Finnish National Ballet.

Frans Valkama and Tamara Rojo in Don Quixote.
Photography (c) Jack Devant / Finnish National Ballet.

It's not just Rojo's bravura technique, the insane fouetté pirouettes or breathtaking balances, which make her irresistible to watch. She has a warmth about her that encompasses all. Including her partner/Basilio of the evening, Finnish National Ballet's principal dancer Frans Valkama. Valkama looks like he's won the ballet jackpot, and his joy is contagious. He may not be the most typical casting for Basilio, but he is an attentive partner, suitable in stature and height, and happy to let his ballerina shine. Rojo is no diva, she gives equal attention to her Basilio, and it's a happy pairing. Valkama is in fine form, Rojo is absolutely stunning and the audience loves it. I'm applauding so hard, my hands burn.

Black Milk and Colours

Rachele Buriassi and Friedemann Vogel in Kazimir's Colours.
Choreography by Maurio Bigonzetti. Photography (c) Jack Devant.
The Finnish National Ballet.
Rachele Buriassi and Friedemann Vogel in Kazimir's Colours.
Choreography by Maurio Bigonzetti. Photography (c) Jack Devant.
The Finnish National Ballet.
Deca Dance Helsinki: Black Milk. Choreography by Ohad Naharin.
The Finnish National Ballet. Photography (c) Jack Devant.

After the intermission, there are two contemporary numbers. Ohad Naharin's "Black Milk" (from the full-length DecaDance Helsinki), and "Kazimir's Colours", choreographed by Maurio Bigonzetti. I had seen Naharin's intense, ritualistic "Black Milk" before (and I'm not going to review it here), but "Kazimir's Colours" was a new experience. Friedemann Vogel, in his third appearance of the gala, which I'm thrilled about.. But this time, it's more of a showcase for his partner Rachele Buriassi. The choreography takes every advantage of the dancers' über-flexible and athletic bodies. It's very impressive, but I'm not jumping out of my seat. I would like to see more of Buriassi though, and Vogel you cannot see enough of.


Manon and Maria


Maria Kochetkova and Johan Kobborg in Manon. Choreography: John Cranko
Photography: (c) Jack Devant / The Finnish National Ballet.

There's one downside to gala evenings: So many interesting and wonderful performances, but you never get the full plate, only tastings... It's also a bit of a challenge to immerse yourself into a story ballet that begins mid-story. Even if you know it well, the mind and senses need time to pick up mood and rhythm. When we get to see Maria Kochetkova as Manon, she has already met des Grieux (danced by Johan Kobborg), fallen in love and escaped with him to Paris. We are inside their bedroom, Manon is luring des Grieux away from his letter-writing... It's a happy lovers' pas de deux, playful and passionate. I love Massenet's music, it carries you away. For Manon, literally. Kochetkova is absolutely lovely, Kobborg noble and strong. I've never seen these two paired, I don't know if they ever have danced together before, but what's not to like? The one thing that I would like: to see the full ballet.

Kenneth & Isabelle, or the story of Tatiana and Onegin

Isabelle Ciaravola as Tatiana, Nicholas Ziegler as Prince Gremin in Onegin.
Choreography: John Cranko. The Finnish National Ballet. Photo: (c) Jack Devant.

Isabelle Ciaravola as Tatiana, Nicholas Ziegler as Prince Gremin in Onegin.
Choreography: John Cranko. The Finnish National Ballet. Photo: (c) Jack Devant.

Nicholas Ziegler, FNB's principal dancer étoile, is a perfect choice for Prince Gremin. He has handsome looks, with long and elegant lines - and very fine technique. His Gremin is noble and chivalrous - and it's easy to see that he is Tatiana's Mr. Right. 
Isabelle Ciaravola as Tatiana, Kenneth Greve as Onegin in Onegin.
Choreography: John Cranko. The Finnish National Ballet. Photo: (c) Jack Devant.
Isabelle Ciaravola as Tatiana, Kenneth Greve as Onegin in Onegin.
Choreography: John Cranko. The Finnish National Ballet. Photo: (c) Jack Devant.

When Kenneth Greve retired from the stage six years ago, he gave his farewell performance in John Cranko's ballet "Onegin". When Isabelle Ciaravola retired from the Paris Opera Ballet earlier this year, she danced the role of Onegin's love, Tatiana. Tonight, they are both making a comeback in the ballet's third act - as Onegin and Tatiana. It's a positively poetic pairing. For Greve, a one-off performance, and when he makes his first appearance as Onegin, I feel again a bit unnerved... Then it happens. I'm looking at Kenneth dance, but all I see is Onegin. His desire and love for Tatiana, and his despair when he realises that he's lost, that it's too late. Then there is Isabelle Ciaravola. I have seen her only on the small screen, but I could recognize her from her incredible feet alone. Arches and insteps to die for, almost too much of a good thing, but it's her thing - and she speaks volumes with those feet. But what strikes me most is her presence. When she sits behind her desk, waiting for Onegin to come, she does not move... And yet she fills the stage. You can feel and see Tatiana's pained resolve, her remnant and rekindled feelings for Onegin. It's not a pas de deux with a happy ending. A past lover who is desperate in his longing, and a beloved who denies their love. It is a beautiful and impassioned performance by Greve & Ciaravola, and I feel blessed to have witnessed it.

Finnish ballet audiences rarely give standing ovations, we (as a nation) tend to be a tad too reserved, too shy to be the first to rise. But this evening, there was no stopping us. When all the dancers, guests and friends, returned to give their final bows and receive their well-earned thanks, I stood up. I applauded their skill and passion, their artistry, the emotions they shared with us. It was a wonderful, magical evening. And what an amazing feeling to take home with me, on the night before my own show.


Photography courtesy of Jack Devant: www.jackdevant.com. Like on facebook: Jack Devant Ballet Photography

9 comments:

  1. Beautiful, thank you for this! I'd like to see them all one day... Strangely enough, I didn't recognize Friedemann in "Kazimir's Colours" - he looks do dfferent there... :-)

    "When she sits behind her desk, waiting for Onegin to come, she does not move... And yet she fills the stage." - Stage presence is a thing I'm still exploring, and I am still wondering how it "works", why some have it and some not, why you can see it even on a small youtube screen, and where ist comes from... Dancer's secret!

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    1. Thank you, Anne! :)

      Some dancers have such charisma, that it's impossible to look elsewhere.. A wonderful quality! But I think stage presence is possible to learn. It has to do with projecting and presenting, and being both confident and generous in your dancing.

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  2. The mystery of stage presence... Even after all those performances I watched, I still have no clue what defines it...
    Wonderful post!
    How about your own performance? What did you dance, how did it go?

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    Replies
    1. Thank you for commenting! :) I was going to write about my performance, but other stuff keeps piling on... It was a contemporary choreography, with a touch of ballet. It went well, I was happy. I'm still thinking about writing a post, so more info later.. :)

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  3. Wow. To have seen Tamara Rojo, Isabelle Ciaravola and Maria Kochetkova in one night -- you are one lucky duck! :)

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    1. You bet! It was beyond awesome!! :)

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  4. Johanna, thanks so much for this beautiful post and your blog. You really gave me the courage and inspiration to begin ballet again at (what I thought was) the 'ripe old age' of 23. I'm so excited at having begun this journey and absolutely loved my first class back, so much so that I've decided to start blogging about my experiences as well! :):)

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    1. Jina, that's awesome! I wish you a wonderful journey, full of discoveries... Enjoy the process and keep dancing :)

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  5. I love watching ballet. It is so peaceful and so beautiful. I think my daughter would be a really good dancer and I want to start her as soon as possible so that she can become really good. I hope to find a dance class near our home so that she can start to develop her talent. http://www.academydancealliance.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=5&Itemid=136

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