Since 2006, the Ballet Icons Gala has become a regular fixture in the dance calendar, a one-off night in which to marvel at a roster of international stars that grace the stage at the London Coliseum. It hasn’t always been an even display of excellence but this year’s well balanced programme proved one of its most successful outings. 

Reece Clarke and Yasmine Naghdi in Manon
© Malcolm Levinkind Photography

There were the usual fireworks but these were neatly interspersed with less obvious additions and alongside the established principals were some young hopefuls who, in the final moments, brought the audience to their feet. In spite of some notable last minute absences (Cesar Corrales, Natalia Osipova and Vadim Muntagirov, to name a few), the evening contained some truly memorable performances as well as a full orchestra (English National Ballet Philharmonic), conducted by Maria Seletskaja.

Aitor Arrieta and Katja Khaniukova in Chopin Romance
© Malcolm Levinkind Photography

It was the less obvious crowd pleasers that have lingered longest and made the most impact. Yasmine Naghdi and Reece Clarke opened with the bedroom pas de deux from Manon in which both seemed radiant with longing and passion. Equally lyrical, and giving Liam Scarlett’s Chopin Romance the benefit of their exquisite partnership, were English National Ballet’s Katja Khaniukova and Aitor Arrieta. Nuanced musicality, seamless transitions and a dreamlike quality were a welcome contrast to some of the technical wizardry elsewhere in the programme. The other standout in this distinctly unshowy selection was Ashton’s pas de deux from The Dream, delivered here by Francesca Hayward and William Bracewell with great artistry. It’s not easy to take this duet out of context, but the two of them managed to transport us into Shakespeare’s woodland glade and work their magic beautifully. 

Bracewell (surely the natural successor to Anthony Dowell) also partnered Marianela Núñez in the wedding pas de deux from Coppélia. Núñez, as always, gave an immaculate account of everything from phrasing, the way she uses the music to enhance her technical prowess and the ease with which she uses her upper body and port de bras. Bracewell too, uses the music to great advantage and between them they demonstrated some breathtaking balances and controlled pirouettes. 

Francesca Hayward and William Bracewell in The Dream

There were three self-choreographed male solos: Sergio Bernal’s Temperament was his usual but distinctive blend of flamenco and classical ballet, executed with ample charisma; Moonlight by Calvin Royal III benefited from having Jacek Mysinski playing the piano (Debussy) on stage. It would be good to see more of Royal in the UK (he hails from American Ballet Theatre) as he has a particularly fluid movement quality. Elevarsi, by Giuseppe Picone was a little too self indulgent and lacking in content, though he clearly has a following here.

Edwaard Liang’s Borealis went down very well with the public. A reflective pas de deux for Lucía Lacarra and Matthew Golding, she possesses such an extraordinary, natural facility for dance it was quite difficult to refrain from staring at her gorgeously stretched feet. Golding, as ever, is an attentive and exemplary partner though he looks less streamlined than in former days. It was disappointing to see Paris Opera Ballet stars Dorothée Gilbert and Audric Bezard, on rather shaky ground in the final pas de deux from Cinderella. In all fairness, Nureyev’s choreography is awkward at best, but neither of them looked comfortable. Nicoletti Manni and Timofej Andrijashenko were far more at home in Roland Petit's Carmen but it could have been cut by half and still held its own. Jeffrey Cirio made a welcome return to the UK from Boston. His award winning performance in the title role in Akram Khan’s Creature didn’t perhaps woo the gala audience, but it was nevertheless a reminder of how much we miss him.

Lucía Lacarra and Matthew Golding in Borealis
© Malcom Levinkind Photography

Of the four stock gala numbers: Maia Makhateli and Daniil Simkin in the Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux, Iana Salenko and Dmitry Zagrebin in Don Quixote, Evelina Godunova and Julian MacKay in Flames of Paris and Margarita Fernandes and António Casalinho in Le Corsaire, it was the latter pairing who garnered the most interest. While the well-versed showed off their best sides in glittering style, the youth brought a certain unfettered enthusiasm to their performances. Fernandes is just 17, Casalinho, 19. Both are soloists with the Bayerisches Staatsballett in Munich and although they had to wait a couple of hours to close the evening, it was worth hanging on for. They are already accomplished and seemingly able to cope with pressure, in all its forms. And while the evening was awash with endless sets of fouettés (not necessarily a benchmark for competence), Fernandes showed that you don't have to have been practising for years to succeed. 

Margarita Fernandes and António Casalinho in Le Corsaire

In some kind of eccentric, buck-the-trend way, I believe it is sometimes preferable to go down the 'less is more' route, even in galas. The repetitive programming of flamboyant set pieces would perhaps more easily highlight the brilliance of a particular excerpt, if we weren't inundated with lots of the same throughout the evening. However, if you're keen to see an expert display of the tricks of the trade, as well as a helping of less obvious flashes of pure excellence, then make sure to put it in the diary for next year. This is as good as it gets.