The stage was covered by bouquets of yellow and blue flowers. A huge corbeille in the same colours almost hid the dancers receiving the acclaim of the audience at the end of the 47th Nijinsky Gala, the traditional international closure of Hamburg Ballet’s season. It may have seemed only an image of a merry moment of shared happiness and gratitude but instead it showed how strong the message can be in a hidden image, because behind these flowers there was an unsaid, but deeply rooted idea, the same that secretly inspired the concept of the entire evening, beside the official theme that traditionally each Nijinsky Gala celebrates through an always inspiring tribute to the art and story of dance. This year the subject chosen by John Neumeier – as usual here as the irreproachable emcee – was “Anniversaries”, but behind this there was another: the experience of artists facing the tragedy of revolution and war. This is an ethical subject that Neumeier feels tremendously about and that inspired him to create recently for the Bundesjungendballett The Invisibles, a touching dance drama about the dramatic stories of German dancers who emigrated or were persecuted and arrested under the Nazis, that recalls current, tragic events where history seems to repeat itself.

Hamburg Ballet's Nijinsky Gala
© Kiran West

Therefore, this Nijinsky Gala was an occasion to reaffirm the unsaid warning of how insane a war can be, and how it can destroy artists’ inner lives. Besides the colours of the bouquets, the Ukrainian theme appeared, from time to time, in the ribbons adorning the chignons of the girls of the Hamburg Ballet School who opened the show dancing with their bold partners a Gopak, a Ukrainian dance. Or in the adamantine beauty of Olga Smirnova’s purest dance: the two pieces she performed with her partner Jakob Feyerlick represent her story. Her present, as a principal dancer at Dutch National Ballet after her valiant decision to leaving the Bolshoi, embodied in the cerebral, rigorous structures of Hans Van Manen’s intense Trois Gnossiennes (also an occasion to celebrate his 90th birthday); and her academic background, exalted by her performance as the gorgeous, stylised ballerina of Grand Pas Classique, the celebrated tour de force created by another artist signed by exile, Viktor Gvovsky.

Olga Smirnova and Jakob Feyferlik in Grand Pas Classique
© Kiran West

To the roaring pair of Royal Ballet principals Matthew Ball and Mayara Magri went the honour of celebrating Sir Kenneth MacMillan with Carousel, his last, unfinished choreography, created few weeks before his death exactly thirty years ago. Rapturous and passionate, full of technical tricks expressing the wild instinct of two young souls, the “If I loved you” duet, from Rodgers and Hammerstein's musical inspired by the play Liliom, revealed the delicious, light-hearted side of MacMillan’s creativity, mostly unknown outside Great Britain. The larger than life heroine of Neumeier’s own version of Liliom, Alina Cojocaru has been for some years a guest principal of Hamburg Ballet, where she has found a place for her immense dramatic sensibilities. In this Gala she returned with her immaterial elusiveness, portraying the seductive Death in a pas de deux from Don Juan, a Neumeier’s ballet dating from 1972 and also performed by Nureyev and Fonteyn. Cojocaru’s partner was Alexander Trusch, one of the strong male personalities of Hamburg Ballet. 

Alina Cojocaru and Alexandr Trusch in Don Juan
© Kiran West

The evening offered them the chance to demonstrate their abilities or tested them in new challenges. In two different scenes from Nijinsky, it was interesting to see the different approaches of the same character by the lyrical Alexandre Riabko, veteran of the role, and the energetic, steely Aleix Martinez. Jacopo Bellussi’s lyrical vulnerability shone in the pas the trois from the Third Symphony of Mahler, danced with the newly appointed principal Xue Lin and the strong Karen Azatyan. New soloist Alessandro Frola sparkled all around with his luminous looks and classic purity with Madoka Sugai, in the 1992 Cinderella Story duet, while Edvin Revazov fought the turmoil of a torn soul in Neumeier’s erotic L'après-midi d’un faune, after Nijinsky’s own choreography. 

Leslie Heylmann
© Kiran West

Among the other dances, the excerpt from Neumeier’s Nutcracker was meaningful, marking the moving farewell of one of the company's best-loved principals, the sunny Leslie Heylmann, along with an excerpt from Ghost Light with an immaculate Silvia Azzoni. Neumeier’s renowned inspirational way of working was confirmed by his recent from time to time, created on the expressive dancers of Demis Volpi’s Ballett am Rhein, who were perfect here, versatile embodiments of the choreographer’s vision thanks to their generosity and passion. To amplify the magic of the show, great support came from the Philharmonic State Orchestra conducted by Nathan Brock and by the iridescent colours of Michal Bialk’s piano playing.