December 5, 2022

A tribute to Rudolph Nureyev at the English National Ballet @ENBallet

‘Don’t forget, enjoy yourself…’

If you want to be involved in the ballet but haven’t put in the necessary years of practice at the barre there is still hope. I have long relinquished any dreams of being principal dancer at the English National Ballet, but at the end of their evening’s tribute to Rudolph Nureyev, I spotted a job that I would be able to perform with aplomb. I may not be able to be a dancer, but flower thrower remains a genuine possibility. At the end of the performance a few fellows stood in the nearest boxes to the stage and lobbed flowers with abandon. Stem after stem rained down at the feet of the dancers. Thrown from both sides the stage was soon a carpet of foliage. All evening I had watched the performers in amazement, but at last here was something that I could do. @ENBallet, if you ever need a new flower thrower, please get in touch.

2013 marks twenty years since Nureyev’s death. He was heavily involved with the English Festival Ballet – the forerunner to the current English National Ballet and three pieces had been chosen to celebrate – Petrushka, Song of a Wayfarer and Act III of Raymonda. However the curtain rose to show a large film screen. Rudolph Nureyev himself danced before us, a documentary telling something of his brilliance. I was in the London Coliseum…watching a film… I had a flashback to an episode in Milan a few years ago. My Italian is a little shaky and I thought I had bought a ticket to a Beethoven concert. After the lights went down it transpired I was not at a Beethoven concert but had instead attended an in-depth lecture about Beethoven. Highly informative it proved to be, but it wasn’t what I had been expecting. I thought I might have a similar situation on my hands here, but the film was only an introduction to the great dancer. Soon Stravinsky’s music was echoing through the Coliseum and the purple curtain rose to show the first tableau of Petrushka, the lavish sets borrowed from Birmingham Royal Ballet.

The St Petersburg Shrovetide fair was in full swing, with dancers performing gravity defying Cossack manoeuvres and ladies primly circulating on a merry-go-round. Hankies were waved, beards were long and drink had been enjoyed by the revellers, although probably not by the dancers from ENBYouthCo who swelled the numbers of grooms, coachmen, merchants and townspeople. Stravinsky’s music is based on the popular music of Russian folk-tunes and Fokine’s choreography won the battle to keep the large company in order on stage.

The appearance of the three puppets is a magical moment. Petrushka, the Moor and the Ballerina hang in the air as though kept on hooks on a wall. Their feet are above the ground, yet they begin to dance, the dancers capturing the way the puppets move stiffly at first after their captivity. Nancy Osbaldeston’s ballerina gives us a beautiful lesson in dancing en pointe, whilst Shevelle Dynott gives the Moor resplendence and playfulness, especially when lying on a bed juggling a coconut between his hands and feet. Nureyev’s role of Petrushka was danced by Fabian Reimar who brings to the role a melancholy awkwardness.

Song of a Wayfarer is set to Mahler’s first song cycle and is a beautiful pas de deux for male dancers by Maurice Bejart. Nureyev had already danced the main classical roles in London when he performed this contemporary French piece with Paolo Bortoluzzi. Here the two parts were danced by Vadim Muntagirov and Esteban Berlanga. After the busyness of the Russian fair scenes the pared back setting drew attention to the muscular precision of the dancers – simply dressed in single colours, one maroon and one blue. Showing a traveller sparring with destiny in a cut-back sparseness it contained similar sentiments to Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. The song was performed by Nicholas Lester who gave the exertion on stage a brooding aural backdrop.

Finally we saw the third Act of Raymonda, choreographed by Nureyev himself in 1969 after Marius Papita’s original. A joyful effusion of energy with many dancers taking the limelight as the Hungarian dance galloped along to Glazunov’s score. The wedding celebrations were enlivened by a quartet of synchronised tours en l’air and finished the evening with a classical flourish.  Nureyev helped save the ENB in the 1970s and his influence is still wonderfully visible today.

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