The first gala I ever saw was actually in the movie The Turning Point. In the final climatic sequence, Emilia (played by Leslie Browne) dances her way to ballerinadom with Yuri (Mikhail Baryshnikov). Meanwhile, Anne Bancroft and Shirley MacLaine slug each other with evening handbags, making up just in time to see their girl applauded wildly by an audience overjoyed at having witnessed the birth of a new star.
Unfortunately, I never got to experience the thrill of a live gala until I moved to Montreal a few years ago. Some of the towns I lived in could barely support a ballet company, much less attract enough stars or audiences for such an event. And I fared no better during my stays in New York City: Either the tickets were just too expensive or I was there at the wrong time. Fortunately, I have had better luck with Montreal’s Gala des Étoiles.
Montreal’s evening of stars most definitely packs ’em in—both the dancers on the stage and spectators in their seats. Before American Idol, before maybe even Star Search, there was the Gala des Étoiles. Although it’s not a competition, half the fun is deciding for yourself which dancers and choreography you liked best and debating with your companions afterwards just who the real star of the evening was—the sort of thing you’d never dream of doing at any other performance in this town.
Galas are at heart celebrations, giant buffets that get your mouth watering, and Montreal’s own is a chance to get a taste of dancers you wouldn’t otherwise experience, unless you have the time and bucks to jet around the world. How, then, could I be a dour critic with such a spread to enjoy? Here is a lighthearted look at this year’s highlights and lowlights.
All I Want for Christmas (or at Least Next Year’s Gala) Are a Couple of Hot-Blooded Spaniards
Carlos Rodriguez and Angel Rojas of Nuevo Ballet Español de Madrid opened the show, as they did last year, with their mesmerizing flamenco: all tapping feet and snapping fingers interspersed with pregnant pauses and intense gazes that could stop even Montreal traffic. Returning in the last act, the two showed their more lyrical side, which proved to be just as red hot, if at a slower burn.
Dancing for Jesus
After the excitement of Rodriguez and Rojas’ first number, I looked down at my program to see that Sandi Patti’s “Via Dolorosa” was to be the music for Adrienne Canterna and Ashley Canterna’s piece. Sandi Patti? The inspirational/Christian singer? As it turned out, the Canterna sisters are very accomplished dancers. There isn’t a jump or turn, it seems, that they can’t perform. But how can one concentrate on the choreography when Patti intones (however sweetly) such lines as “[The Son of God] was bleeding from a beating”? Yikes.
From Russia with Love
Mercifully, Diana Vishneva and Andrian Fadeyev of Saint Petersburg’s Maryinsky (Kirov) Ballet came to the rescue with a delightful performance of George Balanchine’s Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux, the Gala’s one nod to the great Russian choreographer’s centennial year. They returned later in the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet, dancing the original choreography by one of Balanchine’s Soviet contemporaries, Leonide Lavrovsky (this was a special treat for Western audiences who are more familiar with later versions). When the two finished, I wished that the story of the two lovers could have gone on to its tragic end.
La Grande Diva
Formerly from Moscow’s Bolshoi—the other Russian company—Anastasia Volochkova made a dramatic first appearance in Russkaya, sheathed in a razor-sharp tutu that could cut glass. For her second offering, Volochkova presented Villisa, a work that I think was meant to be a “statement” about her past travails: her firing because of excessive weight and the worldwide publicity surrounding the incident. (For the record, she looks statuesque but far from fat.) After the initial opening moments, Volochkova’s hair flew free from its bun and some tulle dropped here and there from her vamped-up Romantic-era tutu. But if there was any choreography to be noted, I didn’t see it. I just couldn’t get over my astonishment at seeing a hairpiece lying (without irony) on the floor.
Hooked on Classics
The Motherland was further represented by Ballet Internationale Indianapolis. Although it’s not based in Russia, the company is run by Soviet-era superstars—and it shows. Grand Pas Classique was impeccably performed by Alexei Tyukov and Natalia Ashikhmina, who pulled off some amazing balances in the opening adagio. In Diane et Acteon, Ogulcan Borova easily tossed off some death-defying leaps and Chieko Oiwa had no problem matching him with her own sparkling technique.
Bring in the Clowns
Ballet Internationale’s assured and exciting showing only made Stuttgart Ballet’s Alicia Amatriain and Eric Gauthier’s send-up Grand Pas Classique II even more deliciously (rather than painfully) funny. Adding to the comedy portion of the evening was Houston Ballet’s Zdenek Konvalina and Leticia Oliveira in Stanton Welch’s Mostly Mozart. Both pieces were zany takes on the trials of partnership and the ham in every performer who wishes to shine alone.
A more serious note was struck by English National Ballet’s Agnes Oaks and Thomas Edur, who displayed a quiet passion and dignity in Derek Dean’s Impromptu with partnering work and lifts that brought to mind (pleasingly so) Kenneth MacMillan on a mellow day. Likewise, their Don Quixote pas de deux, according to an appreciative fellow critic that evening, was almost an intellectual study of the classical showstopper—free of the usual bombast, but perhaps all the more satisfying to watch as a result.
The Choreographer to Watch
My vote for best choreography had to go to the oddest of the lot. Wiesbaden Ballet’s Daniela Severian and Dmitri Simkin brought Stijn Celis’ “Feed the Bird,” a work set to traditional Finnish music. We had here a bird-man, bare-chested and skirted in white tulle (a twist on Swan Lake), and an earnest woman in black, clutching a bag of bread crumbs, searching, finding and finally losing his love. It would take too long to describe the proceedings, but suffice to say Celis is one of the few choreographers who manage, through movement and a few well-chosen props, to strike multiple emotional and psychological chords at once, as he has proven in previous works seen in Montreal. At forty, Celis, now director of the Bern Ballet, has plenty of years to develop his craft and his career is worth following. (Go see Les Grands Ballets Canadiens’ reprise this season of his electrifying Les Noces.)
Last but Not Least
Returning stars included the always stunning Patricia Barker (Pacific Northwest Ballet), hometown favourites Anik Bissonnette and Mario Radacovsky (Les Grands Ballets Canadiens), modern dance stalwart Margie Gillis, and the sensational Yuri Possokhov (San Francisco Ballet). Needless to say, with the reappearance of several of the dancers in other works, the Gala ran well over three hours (maybe a few pieces could have been dropped).
As the unofficial start of Montreal’s dance season, the Gala des Étoiles is almost a false beginning, for the city is a decidedly edgy, experimental dance town. (Even Les Grands Ballets Canadiens has the contemporary dance bug.) For Montrealers, the gala is one of the rare chances to see a few tutus with pointe shoes beneath them.
While no baby ballerina was born that night, I left thrilled and satiated. Hats off to Gala president Victor Melnikoff. Long live the Gala des Étoiles!
Kena Herod is the dance critic for Maisonneuve Magazine. The Dance Scene appears every other Tuesday.