This performance – one of more than 40 being held between 21st June and 30th July as part of the reimagined Ravenna Festival post Covid-19 – was a cause for celebration in the dance world. After months of practising in their kitchens, taking daily class on Zoom and maintaining their fitness in nearby parks and deserted streets, ballet dancers were finally being given the opportunity to perform for a live audience.

Beatrice Rana, Mario Brunello and Matteo Miccini © Zani-Casadio
Beatrice Rana, Mario Brunello and Matteo Miccini
© Zani-Casadio

The recent Royal Opera House live streams featured dance, of course, but only within opera-heavy programmes. By contrast, this Ravenna performance – held at the 15th-century fortress Rocca Brancaleone, which hosted the inaugural festival’s opening concert under Riccardo Muti in 1990 – was dedicated solely to the art form, featuring seven dancers of international renown and two superlative musicians. The original dance offering was to have included several visiting companies and a major world premiere – but no matter. This cleverly devised programme by Daniele Cipriani, based on solos and pas de deux (featuring real-life couples), was hardly a poor substitute. And with award-winning Italian musicians Beatrice Rana and Mario Brunello thrown into the mix, it became a showcase for some exceptional talent.

Hugo Marchand © Zani-Casadio
Hugo Marchand
© Zani-Casadio

Hugo Marchand, étoile of Paris Opéra Ballet, was stunning in Jerome Robbins’s A Suite of Dances, the 1994 work Robbins made for Baryshnikov to four movements from Bach’s Six Cello Suites. Dressed in loose-fitting red trousers and matching shirt, Marchand revelled in the rhythmic twists and turns of Bach’s music, skipping, stamping and cartwheeling across the stage to the Gigue of No. 1 and the Prelude of No. 6, while finding graceful, elegant lines in arabesque during the melancholy stillness of the Sarabande from No. 5. But – and this is a big but – where was the communication between Marchand and Brunello? Had the latter played from memory, as Jean-Guihen Queyras did so poignantly in his Bach collaboration with Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker, the two artists could have enjoyed the musical jokes, the choreography’s “stand-offs” between dancer and cellist. As it was, Brunello was mostly glued to the music. Sadly, the camerawork – both here and elsewhere – did not help matters. With the right video director, a live performance can acquire different nuances, achieve even greater clarity, when viewed at home. Get it wrong, as was often the case here, and you’ll deprive your audience of key strands of narrative or, worse, cut short a challenging jump or technical step before its conclusion.

Iana Salenko © Zani-Casadio
Iana Salenko
© Zani-Casadio

But enough quibbling. Marchand’s sheer musicality was a joy, as was Spanish dancer Sergio Bernal’s – who astounded the audience with his versatility. He paired up with Stuttgart Ballet’s Matteo Miccini (who earlier danced a Nocturne from Edward Clug’s Ssss…) for his own Folia de Caballeros, a hugely entertaining exercise in matador-like bravado, each dancer trying to outdo the other with increasingly elaborate tours en l’air and entrechats. He then donned flamenco shoes for Zapateado, a work Bernal created specially for this lockdown programme, combining complex tap rhythms with balletic athleticism (superbly accompanied by Brunello in Gaspar Cassadó’s virtuosic, percussive Cello Suite no. 3). And to close the whole programme, he mirrored Iana Salenka’s opening Fokine Dying Swan with an alternative version by Ricardo Cue, again to Saint-Saëns’s plaintive cello melody but with more than a touch of Matthew Bourne about it in its tender masculinity.

Sergio Bernal © Zani-Casadio
Sergio Bernal
© Zani-Casadio

Ukrainian Salenko, a principal of Berlin State Ballet, was effortlessly elegant in Roland Petit’s Thaïs to Massenet’s Méditation (by necessity performed on cello rather than violin), wonderfully supported by her husband and fellow Berlin dancer Marian Walter. Their fluidity of movement, and Salenko’s quick-as-a-whip supported pirouettes, were astonishing, and the affection between them was palpable – it was like watching an intimate moment between two lovers. 

There was a similar intimacy between another husband-and-wife couple, Silvia Azzoni and Alexandre Ryabko, both of Hamburg Ballet. In John Neumeier’s 2005 Nocturnes, their relationship was playful, teasing, though the subtle narrative was undermined by insensitive camerawork which cut away to the musicians at the very moment we wanted to see how the shifting dynamics between them played out to an unhappy ending. By contrast, in Uwe Scholz’s sublime Sonata to the Andante of Rachmaninov’s Cello Sonata, Op.19, the connection between them was more tender – a touching portrayal of mature love, epitomised beautifully by these older dancers.

Silvia Azzoni and Alexandre Ryabko © Zani-Casadio
Silvia Azzoni and Alexandre Ryabko
© Zani-Casadio

Both musicians worked tirelessly, accompanying the dancers as well as performing solo pieces: Rana, dressed in a floor-length silver gown and sparkly heels, opened the evening with a poised Aria from Bach’s Goldberg Variations and joined Brunello in a humorous rendition of Schedrin’s Quadrille from his opera Not Love Alone. But it was in Ravel’s La valse that her true powers – of pacing, musicality, and ferocious technical skill – truly came to the fore. She is, as everyone in the music world knows, a force to be reckoned with. Yet, she seemed in awe of the dancers she was accompanying, applauding each and every one of them in turn. A great lover of ballet, she was clearly thrilled to be witnessing dancers doing what they do best once more. She wasn’t the only one.

This performance was reviewed from the video live stream.