“As long as my ballets are danced, I will live.” And so Rudolf Nureyev’s spirit is still very much alive, marked every ten years with a special tribute gala at Ballet de l'Opéra de Paris, where he was artistic director from 1983 until his death. Manuel Legris, whom Nureyev appointed étoile in Paris in 1986, was a great interpreter of Nureyev’s choreographies. Now the new director at Teatro alla Scala's Ballet Company, Legris programmed this Homage to Nureyev as a celebration of his mentor, streamed on the company’s website.

Virna Toppi, Nicola De Freo and company in Raymonda
© Brescia e Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

The event was originally planned for the end of February, but a case of Covid among the cast brought rehearsals to an abrupt halt, postponing filming for a month. Such are the hazards of mounting dance and opera safely in this day and age, but kudos to La Scala for presenting a busy programme of concerts, recitals, opera and dance in recent months. Kudos too for offering a lavishly illustrated programme book for download with two lengthy essays plus notes on all seven ballets from which excerpts were performed, along with cast photographs. Browsing with a pre-performance glass of wine, and you could almost imagine being there...

Alas, ballet is an art form where the absence of an audience is perhaps most keenly felt. When Odile whips through her fouettés, you anticipate an outburst of applause over the music… but nothing comes. And it feels distinctly unnerving watching dancers going through the motions of bowing and curtseying to an empty opera house. The artificial nature was exacerbated by the stream racing through the seven items with barely a pause for breath.

Nicoletta Manni in Don Quixote
© Brescia e Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

The performances itself were very fine. Legris framed the evening with two longer excerpts – the “vision” of Dulcinea and the Dryads from Don Quixote and the wedding divertissement from Raymonda (the latter being the first time the La Scala company has performed this work in Nureyev’s choreography) – with some plum solos and pas de deux in between.

The opening scene gave the Scala corps chance to shine, shimmering en pointe as the dryads in Don Quixote’s dream, while Nicoletta Manni danced Dulcinea beautifully, joined by the dainty Maria Celeste Losa (Queen of the Dryads) and Agnese Di Clemente (Amore) in their variations.

Claudio Coviello in Manfred
© Brescia e Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

Martina Arduino exuded confidence as the Princess Aurora, her Rose Adage climaxing in steely promenades as each cavalier leads her guided pirouette. Claudio Coviello danced a charismatic solo from Manfred, choreographed by Nureyev in 1979 to Tchaikovsky’s Byronic programmatic symphony.

The Black Swan pas de deux from Swan Lake is one of ballet’s most iconic scenes, but Nureyev turned it into a pas de trois, beefing up Rothbart’s role in passing off his daughter as Odette, urging Siegfried to swear an oath of love. He even gets a solo variation, Christian Fagetti whipping through his turns nimbly. Timofej Andrijashenko was an impressive Siegfried with muscular leaps, while Manni, in her second appearance of the evening, dispatched Odile’s fouettés with style.

Timofej Andrijashenko, Nicoletta Manni and Christian Fagetti in Swan Lake
© Brescia e Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

Nureyev’s most radical take on a classic was probably moving Cinderella to 1930s Hollywood, where starstruck Cinders falls for a leading actor. Alessandra Vassallo and Gabriele Corrado were a dreamy couple in the Act 2 pas de deux, the epitome of elegance, she eventually swooning into a lovely hold while he spins on a stool.

Alessandra Vassallo and Gabriele Corrado in Cinderella
© Brescia e Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

Marco Agostino and Vittoria Valerio threw themselves into the Balcony Scene from Romeo and Juliet, adding an impetuous feel to the choreography (and a few untidy moments), aided by Koen Kessels’ swift tempi, the La Scala Orchestra on excellent form throughout the programme.

Glazunov’s toothsome score to Raymonda sounded exquisite in the finale, the Hungarian vibes emerging strongly. Nicola Del Freo nonchalantly beat his double cabrioles as Jean De Brienne, while Virna Toppi’s Raymonda was poised, if lacking a little in Hungarian “snap”. Appropriately, the divertissement was performed with a giant photograph of Nureyev taking a curtain call at La Scala on the backcloth, giving the dancers their own chance to salute him during the curtain call, the orchestra adding some welcome applause.

This performance was reviewed from the Teatro alla Scala video stream