The Merrian Webster dictionary defines Russian Ballet as a technique “with characteristic emphasis upon the execution of dramatic, symbolic, or interpretative pantomime through rhythmic plastic movements and postures”. Every year, the Russian Ballet Icons Gala reminds London audiences of these characteristics by combining classics of great ballet masters and new creations. The 12th edition of the event, entitled In the Steps of the Ballets Russes, pays tribute to Sergey Diaghilev’s legendary troupe, who depicted Russian culture to the rest of the world, and showcased ballet as the result of a collaborative work between composers, choreographers, painters and dancers. 

An integral part of the Ballets Russes legacy, Mikhail Fokine’s creations are on the spotlight: The opening piece, Schéhérazade, features Kristina Kretova’s lascivious Zobéide and Ivan Vasiliev’s seductive Golden Slave. His penetrating look and the double saut de basque followed by extraordinarily soft landings were amongst the highlights of the evening. Vladislav Lantratov gave the exact touch of humour to the Tsarevitch in Firebird, competently interpreted by Maria Alexandrova. Vladimir Shklyarov gave a moving and deep interpretation of Petrushka, which unfortunately did not receive as much applause as it deserved. Le Spectre de la Rose, performed by Mariinsky stars Yulia Makhalina and Xander Parish, and Iana Salenko’s Dying Swan completed the programme. 

While Diaghilev’s works may have both shocked and mesmerized audiences throughout the world, the rigour and panache of the technique that forges “Russian” dancers from all over the world was never overlooked by the Ballets Russes. It may be for this reason that extracts of Petipa’s emblematic pas de deux were also presented, starting with the Black Swan pas, performed by a machiavellic Liudmila Konovalova (who also performed Xenia West’s pas de deux Theatrum Vitae with Davide Dato) and a noble if somewhat naïve but remarkably elegant left-turner Vadim Muntagirov. Later in the first act the public had the chance to see Evgenia Obratzsova and Dmitry Gudanov in The Sleeping Beauty pas. It was a treat to see how Obratzsova combined freshness and intensity, thus presenting the audience with a high-spirited and effortless interpretation of Aurora. 

Despite this year’s title, the programme suggests that audiences can never have enough of Petipa. Isaac Hernández proved to be both a reassuring partner and a virtuoso dancer as Basilio in Don Quixote, the last piece of the evening.Tamara Rojo’s interpretation of Kitri, with always the same precision, dynamism – and pirouettes! – required by the character, was enthusiastically received by the audience.

George Balanchine, a former dancer of the Ballets Russes, was also honoured in the programme. Royal Ballet principals Sarah Lamb and Steven McRae provided a flawless interpretation of Rubies, which the public will have a chance to see at the Royal Opera House in the coming weeks. The audience, on the other hand, seemed less moved by the very elegant Maria Kochetkova and Tyler Angle’s interpretation of Diamonds.

In addition to the “usual suspects”, this year’s gala featured Gerald Arpino’s Light Rain. Douglas Adams’s scores, as well as the amber light at the beginning of the choreography created a minimalist and somehow transcendental atmosphere. The impact that this technically challenging piece exerted on the audience was largely due to Lucia Lacarra and Marlon Dino’s performance.Their enigmatic character, exacerbated by Lacarra’s high extensions and extreme range ofmotion, rendered the choreography at the same time disturbing and fascinating, as Diaghilev would have appreciated. Nikolai Tsiskaridze, director of the Vaganova School since 2014, staged Legat brothers’ Fairy Dolls. The conventional theme and format of the choreography were largely compensated by the energetic performance of senior students from the Vaganova Academy. The future of Russian Ballet is in good hands... and feet!