Maya Mikhailovna Plisetskaya was one of the greatest Russian ballerinas of all time. She died last year on May 2nd a few months short of her 90th birthday. The glittering gala held at the London Coliseum in her memory was organised by Ensemble productions and was compered by Andris Liepa whose father, Maris Liepa, was one of Maya’s regular partners. The three-hour programme brings together many super-talented dancers from international companies, who each paid their own tribute to the artist, performing pieces, some associated with Plisetskaya, and others that she would have approved of.

Plisetskaya’s prodigious talent fortunately has been captured on film – many of which are now available online – where we can see her performing the many varied roles she danced throughout her lifetime. She continued to dance, albeit it not with the electricity of her young days, until she reached her 80’s. Each clip shows her stunning technique, her flamboyant and fearless ecstasy in floor-devouring leaps and whizzing turns, her sharp, slicing leg actions, her vitality, sparkle and convincing acting. But to have experienced a live performance – as I did many times at the Bolshoi Theatre in the mid '70's – was to realise what it was that made her great. Like Nureyev, she had a wondrous presence, a magic about her that, even when just standing still, reverberated onto her fellow dancers on stage and out into the audience alike. Dancing was as natural as breathing and she lit up the stage in ballets such as Laurencia and Don Quixote with an effervescent joy and fiery passion that could have ignited the red stars on the walls of the Kremlin. 

So what of today’s dancers? There were plenty of technical feats on show, but could anyone capture that special Maya mystique? 

There was one overall winner whose performance ticked all the qualities in the box – Sergio Bernal from Ballet Nacional de Espana and Ballet Teatro Raphael Aguilar. He danced The Three-Cornered Hat with mesmeric brilliance, twirling the ruby-red silken cape around him, then showing off his fast, vigorous footwork (zapateado) with that proud commanding presence. However, there were also others to admire. For stunning technique, Angelina Vorontsova and Viktor Lebedev (Mikhailovsky Ballet) performed a secure and beautiful filigree pas de deux from Nacho Duato’s production of The Sleeping Beauty. Sarah Lamb and Federico Bonelli (The Royal Ballet) danced the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet with lightness and fluidity, while Kristina Shapran and Xander Parish (Mariinsky Ballet Theatre) performed an elegant and touching second act pas de deux from Giselle.

Adding spice to their technical prowess were Maria Kochetkova and Daniil Simkin from American Ballet Theatre. These diminutive dancers performed the sparkling duet from Le Corsaire, not only with immaculate presentation but also with polished spot-on turns, leaps and lifts. The Mariinsky’s Kimin Kim as The Talisman’s God of the Wind lived up to his title, hurtling in with floor devouring leaps and hurricane turns as his partner Ekaterina Osmolkina vied for his attention, daintily hopping on pointe and rattling off quick pirouettes.

Maya’s charm and effervescence was evidenced by Ekaterina Krysanova in The Bright Stream with fellow Bolshoi dancer Andrei Merkuriev. Along with scintillating style, they were comic and witty. Dramatic force poured out of the last scene of Onegin, danced by Stuttgart Ballet’s Jason Reilly as Onegin and Polina Semionova (ABT) as Tatiana, torn between love and duty. A tear-jerking performance from them both. Liudmila Konovalova (Vienna State Ballet) made a convincing Black Swan, seducing with sharp slicing movement and good acting, while Matthew Golding (RB) fired on all cylinders, racing round the stage in stretched jetés, impressing us if not Odile. More sensual was the duet between Crassus and Aegina from Spartacus which the Bolshoi’s Maria Alexandrova and Vladislav Lantratov performed with aplomb and professionalism, though the snippet was not the most exciting of party pieces.

And for sheer delight, there was the Moshkovsky Waltz, a true Soviet bravura work with its tossing, catching and running off with girl held high in the air, done splendidly by Daria Klimentova (ex-English National Ballet) and Vadim Muntagirov (RB)

Two of Maya’s signature pieces were performed: Carmen Suite with English National Ballet’s director Tamara Rojo, in a very short black shimmy, dancing far more than just the steps and bringing out new facets to the saucy, sensual role as she swivelled her hips, turned her feet in and clasped her leg to her face. Isaac Hernández made a touching and earnest Don José. Another of Maya’s favourites was Bolero, originally choreographed by Béjart for a man, which she performed to rave reviews. Now it was the Kirov Ballet’s superstar Farukh Ruzimatov who performed its pulsating rhythms. Bare-chested with his wild mane tied up with red ribbon, he showed he could still command the stage with his undulating movements and proud bearing.

Maya would have liked the three non-narrative works: Together Alone a swirling duet in jeans and t-shirts performed by Aurélie Dupont and Hervé Moreau (Paris Opera Ballet); Spiral Twist, a silky smooth swirling duet by Lucia Lacarra and Marlon Dino (Bavarian State Ballet); and After the Rain with body wrapping, back bending Marianela Nuñez and Thiago Soares (RB)

The favourite is always left to the end and here, even though technique was not as sharp and correctly placed all the time, the sheer exuberance and fearless ecstasy of performing was seen again as Ivan Vasiliev (Mikhailovsky Ballet), danced the Don Quixote pas de deux with his equally beguiling partner, Kristina Kretova (Bolshoi Ballet), showing her rock-steady balances. They were out to have fun and they certainly had that – and so did the audience. They blazed through the tricks as naturally as one runs down the street, both beaming with the joy of it all.

While there will never be another Maya Plisetskaya – she truly was a unique legend – what she offered to her audiences is being continued today by the younger generation, as was seen in this excellent gala in her memory. And she would have approved of that.