Galas come and galas go, but this one had a gravitas that is uncommon to the genre. There was clarity of purpose and thoughtfulness in curation that is generally lacking when faced with the usual helter-skelter of trying to muster a gala programme of any kind in the face of injuries, visa problems and conflicting commitments. Each work was performed with an academic reverence, without set; introduced by a simple backdrop projection with the choreographer’s photo and basic data.

Mayara Magri, Matthew Ball and Ivan Putrov in <i>Images of Love</i> © Andrej Uspenski
Mayara Magri, Matthew Ball and Ivan Putrov in Images of Love
© Andrej Uspenski

So, hats off to Ivan Putrov for bringing to London several extracts of works that are rarely, if ever, seen and an ensemble of guest dancers with similar exclusivity. His title, Against the Stream, indicates a theme of works by choreographers who challenged convention, by going against the flow. It doesn’t entirely work when assessed against each of the programme’s contributions but it does enough to be justified. If one asks “When is a gala not a gala?”, then, thematically at least, this could be it.

The unearthed gems brought to us from overseas were unusual – and in some cases, unique; sightings of work by Serge Lifar (Suite en Blanc), Jerome Robbins (Suite of Dances and In G Major, conveniently performed consecutively), and the main pas de deux from Rudolf Nureyev’s Hollywood-inspired Cinderella. Even more remarkably, Putrov dug up some finds from much closer to home in Kenneth MacMillan’s Images of Love and – just to be even-handed – Frederick Ashton’s Dance of the blessed spirits, a solo made for Anthony Dowell (music by Gluck), which was danced enigmatically by Putrov himself.

Mathieu Ganio and Hannah O’Neill were welcome guests from Paris Opera Ballet, performing the aforementioned duets by Lifar and Nureyev: the first, an imperious, slow-burning showcase of neoclassical elegance (pure dance of exceptional quality, beautifully performed); and the second, floating, romantic choreography from Nureyev’s 1930s interpretation of Cinderella ending with the couple spinning, seemingly endlessly, on a revolving chair.

Joaquin de Luz celebrated the recent announcement that he is to direct Spain’s Compañía Nacional de Danza with the set of deliciously personal, quirky solos, choreographed by Robbins as a set-piece for Mikhail Baryshnikov to dance to solo cello music by Bach. Like the man on whom the work was created, de Luz has charisma in spades and accompanied by Urška Horvat’s on-stage musicianship, this becomes a characterful, often jaunty, duet between dancer and cellist. It was a highlight in an evening of many treasures.

Matthew Ball and Mayara Magri in <i>Awakening</i> © Andrej Uspenski
Matthew Ball and Mayara Magri in Awakening
© Andrej Uspenski

I was less smitten by the workmanlike performance of Robbins’ In G Major by Maria Kowroski and Tyler Angle, and Kowroski returned to give a suitably sparkling turn in Balanchine’s Diamonds pas de deux, accompanied rather uncertainly by Marcelo Gomes. Gomes also made a quick return for a nonchalant run-through Twyla Tharp’s Sinatra Suite, alongside a perky cameo by Kate-Lynn Robichaux, which stood out like a sore thumb, in terms of its incongruity within the programme.

Either side of the interval came the reawakening of the two British pieces. Ashton’s solo preceded by Matthew Ball, Putrov and Mayara Magri bringing entangled passion to MacMillan’s Images of Love, a work inspired by Shakespeare’s Two Angels sonnet, made to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s birth, which showcases an eternal triangle of unsatisfactory love danced here with sinuous and palpable expressiveness. Later, Ball and Magri returned to demonstrate once more that they are stars in the ascendancy of British ballet with a dreamy, polished performance of Ashton’s Awakening pas de deux.

However, the star of the show was a dancer who has recently grasped the opportunity of stardom and delivered with breath-taking aplomb. What a week it has been for Katja Khaniukova. This exceptionally gifted dancer has done more to garner attention over eight days than in the previous five years and this recognition is fully merited.

Dmitry Zagrebin dances <i>The Flames of Paris</i> © Andrej Uspenski
Dmitry Zagrebin dances The Flames of Paris
© Andrej Uspenski

Framed by Flames, she opened the English National Ballet She Persisted bill, midweek, dancing as Frida Kahlo in Broken Wings, to great acclaim, and here Khaniukova began by reprising the Flames of Paris pas de deux (danced, last Sunday, at the Russian Icons gala on this same stage), this time partnering Dmitry Zagrebin of the Royal Swedish Ballet. It sizzled with virtuoso dancing, included Zagrebin’s pair of gasp-inducing, full rotation jetés en tournant with that exciting, whipped-over trailing leg, Cuban-style. Not to be outdone, Khaniukova stepped demurely through the intricate footwork of the “Soldier, soldier won’t you marry me” refrain of the female variation before powering her way elegantly through the multiple fouettés of the coda.

Having wowed us once with their vivacious virtuosity, Khaniukova and Zagrebin returned to do it all over again in the finale of Vaganova’s Diana and Acteon pas de deux, framed by a small corps of six dancers from the ENB School. I think it must be rare for any ballerina to perform countless fouettés twice on the same night, but in the form she’s in, I expect that Khaniukova would have kept coming back for more!

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