It would be hard to find someone who has not heard of Anna Pavlova. The name alone conjures up words such as elegant, visionary, iconic. Her acclaim results from a career in ballet spanning over 30 years, in which she had a tremendous influence over the world of classical dance and earned her place as one of the finest Russian ballerinas in history. Therefore, it was no surprise that the London Coliseum decided to host a Russian Ballet Icons Gala dedicated to this sensational dancer. The evening was a star-studded spectacle featuring dancers from leading companies such as English National Ballet and the Bolshoi.

Ulyana Lopatkin in Russkaya, © Sergei Stepovoi
Ulyana Lopatkin in Russkaya,
© Sergei Stepovoi

After a mesmerising montage of clips showing Pavlova in her heyday, the performance began. La Corsaire was the first feature of the evening, telling the story of Medora, a young Greek woman, who was sold as a slave and then rescued by the corsair (or pirate). Choreographed by Marius Petipa and Joseph Mazilier, it was restaged for the Mariinsky Ballet in 1899, when Pavlova was a member. Le Corsaire was a spectacular opening, demonstrating the skill of both dancers. Viacheslav Lopatin showed his power and agility as he executed a long set of pirouettes and leaps, whilst Anastasia Stashkevich demonstrated her incredible strength and grace in bourées across the stage.

Compassione was an unexpectedly delightful contemporary piece. The back wall was flushed with a yellow wash that gave a radiant air to Giuseppe Picone’s movement. The audience witnessed his arms intricately weaving from one position to the next, accompanied by the slow, lilting sound of a lone piano. Picone provided moments of awe which were balanced with simple gestures; he rolled backward into the splits before slowly raising his forearms in front of his face then leaning on one arm like a pillow. This became a constant, comforting refrain throughout the dance.

Ulyana Lopatkina danced Goleizovsky’s Russkaya: a fitting tribute to Pavlova and Russian dance, being a lively reference to Russian folk traditions. Lopatkina was instantly striking: she appeared on stage in a majestic outfit and a jewelled headpiece much like Pavlova wore. The dance gave off an Indian air as the performer whimsically snaked her arms and tilted her head, grasping a light handkerchief which she flicked with purpose and authority. The music in this piece (written by Piotr Tchaikovsky and played by the orchestra of the English National Ballet) was superb and gave Russkaya a light-hearted feel that complimented the dancer’s movements beautifully. The standout performance of the night.

Life is a Dream was given its world première, and featured renowned ballerina Tamara Rojo and choreography by Fei Bo. Without a doubt the most surreal part of the evening’s events, Life is a Dream had Rojo dance opposite a surprising partner: a fish bowl. She began sitting in a Buddha-like stance, facing the bowl, and slowly began to rotate her wrists. These simple movements were enthralling and suggested a carefree demeanour. However, this did not last for long, as the music, with oriental strumming and abrupt halts in rhythm, brought frantic movements as Rojo flailed her arms and frequently convulsed her body. What was so decidedly odd (and the main reason why I loved the piece) was the constant alternation between elegance and awkwardness. Bo’s choreography went from soaring leg extensions to a backwards lean with grappling outstretched arms. I could sense this piece was something you either loved or hated: the Marmite of the classical ballet world.

The evening was rounded off with a pastiche of Neumeier’s version of The Nutcraker for a pas de deux depicting Anna Pavlova taking a class with Enrico Cecchetti. Anna Pavlova’s image hung regally over the stage as if watching over the proceedings, giving her satisfied approval to this wondrous night.