Rudolf Nureyev was born in 1938 and died in 1993, making 2013 the 75th anniversary of his birth and the 20th of his death. English National Ballet have cause to be deeply grateful to Nureyev: he gave them (in their previous incarnation as London Festival Ballet) their popular Romeo and Juliet, and lent his box-office appeal as a principal dancer to numerous other productions. The current ENB Tribute to Rudolf Nureyev is a rather excellent triple bill; I almost wonder whether the clunky “Tribute” title is doing it any favours – does Nureyev’s name still have the drawing power it had in his lifetime? Nureyev was a rock star, no doubt about it (see the picture on the poster of him smouldering in a black ruff and eyeliner like a ripped, broad-shouldered Bowie), but although that unforgettable talent deserves to be honoured, this programme was also a strong showcase for ENB’s contemporary talent.

Rudolf Nureyev © English National Ballet
Rudolf Nureyev
© English National Ballet

After a Nureyev tribute video we could have done without came Petrushka. This masterpiece of the Ballets Russes (score by Stravinsky and choreography by Fokine) sets the haunting, sad eternal love triangle of Pierrot, Columbine and Harlequin in the midst of an affectionate recreation of a St Petersburg fair. ENB’s dancers made a characterful, spirited crowd of drunks, street dancers, market sellers, and even a bear; all great fun to watch. But the ballet’s power rests in the pared-down situation of the three puppet characters: the clumsy, tortured Petrushka is in love with the pert, flirty Ballerina, who in her turn is more interested in the vital, straightforward Moor. Fabian Reimair as Petrushka had perhaps the most to live up to, given all the images of Nureyev in the same part which decorated the programme, but he was equal to the task; the loose swinginess of his dejected body was particularly heart-rending. Nancy Osbaldeston, with feet so tiny and arched she could have been dancing on question marks, was crisp and terrifyingly vacant as the ballerina, while Shevelle Dynott was an assured Moor, with no foot or coconut out of place. With choreography, costumes, sets and music that are pitch- (and period-)perfect, and a story that cuts right to the heart; this is ballet at its best.

After the interval, a complete change of style: Song of a Wayfarer is a pas de deux made for Nureyev and Paolo Bertoluzzi in 1971 by Maurice Béjart. As Nicholas Lester sang a cycle of Mahler Lieder expressing the joys and despairs of a wandering journeyman, Vadim Muntagirov and Esteban Berlanga (in the Nureyev and Bertoluzzi roles) echoed Mahler in dance: solemn, relentless and tender. The choreography demands both beautiful classical lines and the ability to abandon them in order to convey harrowed exhaustion with the turned-in asymmetry, and both dancers excelled in both regards. Muntagirov, though, seems to be a sweet and sunny soul, whose journey from Russia to England had nothing of Nureyev’s danger or desperation; consequently, though he dances just gorgeously, his face cannot quite plumb the emotional depths open to the more ravaged Nureyev.

The last piece was the third act of Raymonda, one of the great Petipa Imperial Russian ballets, and renowned as a masterpiece of classical choreography. As ENB’s orchestra swelled and thrilled the opening bars of Glazunov’s music, we were transported to what was ostensibly the wedding scene of a French Crusader and the Raymonda of the title, and is in fact one of the biggest and most successful anachronistic mash-ups you will ever see. Ignoring the architectural oddities of the cod-Norman set, and the incongruity of tutus in anything meant to be medieval, the choreography is all over the place: a bit of “Hungarian” folk dancing here, some straight-up classical ballet there, some barrel turns (a flashy jump) that I doubt Petipa ever saw in his life but which were put in by Nureyev, always keen to make the men’s dances more exciting. Moreover, how did a chaste, medieval French maiden acquire the kind of commanding air displayed by Daria Klimentova as Raymonda? As the programme says, it’s best not to ask for logic. Klimentova is superb, with perfect classical lines and an electric aura; her partner Muntagirov jumps high, beats fast and lands surely, all the while smiling down at her with touchingly obvious adoration. These two are a joy to watch together; whenever they were on, I kept forgetting to keep track of what the corps de ballet were up to. The finale had all the “just keep jumping” intensity and musical swoosh of the best Petipa set-pieces, with added touches of humour that must have come from Nureyev; when the curtain came down everyone on both sides of the proscenium was beaming with delight. Oh, ENB, I want to see more like this!

****1