The Russian ballerina Galina Ulanova is a true legend in the world of classical ballet. Her dramatic interpretations plumbed deep into the human soul and revealed its full gamut of emotion and poetic beauty. In her private life, she was a shy and gentle person but on stage, she came to life embodying her characters with heartfelt emotion, refinement and realism, often giving to the smallest detail, an enormous lasting impression—(who can forget her love-smitten Juliet seeing Romeo’s unmasked face for the first time? Or the now-legendary run, with billowing cape to seek help from Friar Lawrence, every step telling of the agony she was facing?)

Ulyana Lopatkina and Marat Shemiunov in Les Sylphides © Ensemble Productions
Ulyana Lopatkina and Marat Shemiunov in Les Sylphides
© Ensemble Productions

This gala celebrating the centenary of Ulanova’s birth was the sixth in a series presented by Ensemble Productions, honouring Russian dance icons. It was directed by Vladimir Vasiliev, a legend himself, and by Royal Ballet principal, David Makhateli. Twenty-three star dancers from nine of the world’s top companies participated in the three hour-long tribute, which also showed (far too few) clips of Ulanova in some of her greatest roles. These, though crackly and grainy, still have the power to draw us into her magic spell.

The smorgasbord on offer to the packed auditorium included many classical extracts associated with the great ballerina and also some more contemporary works. Being a pioneer, seizing every opportunity to try new styles, Ulanova probably would have been intrigued with the two contemporary pieces on show. Le Parc, choreographed by Angelin Preljocaj, was interpreted with momentous strength and great control by Nadia Saidakova and Vladimir Malakhov from Staatsballett Berlin, while performing Jean-Christophe Maillot’s La Belle Pas de Deux, Bernice Coppieters and Alexis Oliviera from Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo, quickly glued themselves together in a kiss and only came up for air after split-timing and physically challenging, athletic activity. From the Novosibirsk State Ballet, director Igor Zelensky and Tatyana Gorokhova danced elegantly to Sinatra’s smoochy singing in Twyla Tharp’s Sinatra Variations, while that ever-popular gala offering, the Diana and Acteon pas de deux, was performed with sharp technique by Dorothee Gilbert (Paris Opera Ballet) and powerhouse physicality of Royal Ballet’s Thiago Soares. English National Ballet was represented by Daria Kilimentova and Vadim Muntagirov, both showing sparkling form in Balanchine’s flashy Tchaikovsky pas de deux, especially the 21-year-old Vadim whose whirlwind turns and soaring leaps brought roars from the audience. Not to be out done, the Bolshoi’s Ekaterina Krysanova wowed with her multiple hole-boring, break-neck fouette turns in The Flames of Paris as her partner, Vladislav Lantratov showed off with high turning leaps and a charismatic personality.

So, onto the classical extracts closely connected to Galina Ulanova. Having known her in her later years, I was eager to see if any ballerina would emulate her unique style. Closest came Ulyana Lopatkina, the prima ballerina of the Mariinsky Ballet, Ulanova’s original company, partnered by Marat Shemiunov (Mikhailovsky Ballet). In both her pieces, Les Sylphides and Asaf Messerer’s Orpheus and Eurydice, she floated as light as thistledown, her neat feet barely touching the ground., completely lost in her dancing. Also stunning was Svetlana Zacharova (Bolshoi) who, in The Dying Swan solo, presented the ultimate in rippling arms and quivering feet, injecting the short but poignant work with pathos. She returned in Vladimir Vasiliev’s powerful ballet Macbeth, (which Ulanova had coached), as the conniving, heartless Lady Macbeth, her legs shooting up like rapiers around her guilt stricken husband, (Andrei Uvarov, Bolshoi)

No one can emulate Ulanova’s legendary Juliet but the Mariinsky’s glorious young ballerina Evgenia Obraztsova showed us a delicate starry-eyed teenage heroine, her dancing bubbling over with joy. Her Romeo was David Makhateli an ardent lover who jubilantly shot around the stage showing sharp six-o-clock jetes. Another of Ulanova’s most notable roles was in The Red Poppy, and here Darya Khokhlova (Bolshoi) presented a perky, charming and technically secure Tao-Hoa.

Two students (Olga Smirnova and Sergey Strelkov) from Ulanova’s early training ground, the Vaganova School, danced Messerer’s Dvorak Melody with great feeling and sensitivity, while the Bolshoi’s Svetlana Lunkina and Dmitri Gudanov performed the pas de deux from Act 2 of Giselle, Lunkina’s delicate, expressive body and disciplined controlled balances evidencing her other-worldliness.

For the finale, all the dancers, who had been accompanied by the rich tones of the Orchestra of English National Ballet, conducted by Valery Ovsyanikov, came out, couple by couple to lay flowers under Galina Ulanova’s photo in tribute to a truly great ballet legend.