Ukraine has long been a significant hotspot for classical ballet. The venerable school in Kyiv has provided some of world ballet’s greatest stars (Alina Cojocaru, Iana Salenko and Svetlana Zakharova to name but three). So, it is a surprise that the country's National Ballet had never previously performed in the UK. Ivan Putrov has enjoyed a long career based in London, including eight years as a principal with The Royal Ballet, and for the past decade he has combined the role of dancer with that of impresario, largely through his flagship production vehicle, Men in Motion, which will celebrate its tenth anniversary, next year. Here, for one night only, he has showcased the dancers of his homeland in a special gala at Sadler’s Wells, although sadly, an injury meant that Putrov was unable to join them on stage.

Natalia de Froberville and Francesco Gabriele Frola in Diana and Actaeon
© Elliott Franks

His years of production experience showed in a well-structured programme that had something for every taste: a new one-act work of contemporary ballet followed by a mix of sturdy warhorses from the Imperial Russian repertoire and a couple of examples of traditional Ukrainian ballet, albeit choreographed in the Soviet era by a Russian and a Georgian. Partnering Ukrainian dancers with stars of The Royal Ballet or English National Ballet added to the rich mix of anticipation and interest.

The world premiere was System A/I, choreographed by Ludovic Ondiviela with dramaturgy by the evening's co-producer, Olga Danylyuk, and one should not under-estimate the logistical challenges and scale of achievement for an itinerant and entirely freelance group to commission, develop and premiere a sophisticated new work. As the title suggests, System A/I concerns the encroachment of Artificial Intelligence on everyday lives with Matthew Ball being the prime subject in a subliminal narrative that suggested a robotic form being prepared, packaged and delivered to “his” human owners. There was an essence of Frankenstein, or perhaps even Akram Khan’s Creature, which is to premiere at this same theatre in two weeks’ time, in the undercurrent of alienation and the tenderness of human contact (the final duet between Ball and Mayara Magri was especially touching). Otherwise, I was left with the impression of movement that was expressed in a tad too much “armography” and dramaturgical ideas that were not easy to grasp. Leo Dixon substituted for Putrov in the second male lead role, performing with an earnest exuberance and ten excellent dancers from the National Ballet of Ukraine provided the supporting corps.

Matthew Ball, Leo Dixon and Mayara Magri in System A/I
© Elliott Franks

A substantial helping of ten gala pieces followed the interval with four venerable Russian pas de deux showcasing Ukrainian dancers now performing in other countries, beginning with Victor Gsovsky’s Grand Pas Classique, danced elegantly by Magri and an attentive Denys Cherevychko (Vienna State Ballet). After the enigmatic white tutu Cigarette Solo from Suite en blanc by Serge Lifar (another product of the Kyiv ballet school) danced charmingly by Natalia de Froberville (Toulouse Ballet du Capitole), came the Act 2 pas de trois from Le Corsaire with Ball and Dixon in unfamiliar territory as Conrad and Ali respectively, partnering Olesia Shaytanova (Lithuanian National Ballet). Later in the second act, former Royal Ballet dancer Fernando Montano partnered Anna Muromtseva in an unremarkable Solor/Nikiya pas de deux from La Bayadère and de Froberville returned to partner Francesco Gabriele Frola in a fizzing Diana and Actaeon showpiece which had the audience clapping along to the music (not a response often seen in British ballet performances). Frola’s ebullient virtuosity was suitably striking. It deserved to be the closing number but that honour was taken by a suite of Don Quixote greatest hits, with an hors d’ouevre of Shaytanova (Mercedes) and Voldymyr Kutuzov (Espada) setting the scene for more fireworks from Cesar Corrales partnering American Ballet Theatre’s Christine Shevchenko in the grand pas de deux.  Earlier, Shevchenko had stamped her indelible mark on a mesmerising Dying Swan.

Olesia Shaytanova in Don Quixote
© Elliott Franks

The programme’s odd-one-out was a brief solo extracted from Hans van Manen’s Five Tangos, danced by Cherevychko with effervescent flair. The two pieces from the Soviet-era Ukrainian ballet repertoire began with a duet from Vakhtang Vronsky’s Forest Song, which was especially poignant for Putrov, since his first appearance on stage (aged 10) was in this ballet. It was danced with sibylline charm by Kutuzov and Yulia Moskalenko and was immediately followed by the traditional Cossack folk dance of Gopak from Rostislav Zakharov’s Taras Bulba, danced with an abundance of joy and high jumps by Daniil Silkin, Vladyslav Bosenko and Maksym Bilokryntskyi.

The gala was generous in weaving together a diverse dance mix to satisfy both diehard balletomanes and newbies to the art. A greater profile for the dancers from the Ukrainian National Ballet, who were mostly there for support, would have been welcome, as would more examples of the Ukrainian legacy. A couple of the works from the traditional gala fare could happily have been dropped to give more insight into what makes Ukrainian ballet so special.