Sunday, 15 September 2019

The Dutch National Ballet's 2019 Gala

Xander Parish and Maria Khoreva in "Diamonds"
Author Michel Schnater, © 2019 Dutch National Ballet: all rights reserved

Dutch National Ballet Gala 10 Sept 2019, 19:30 Music Theatre, Amsterdam

The opening night gala of the Dutch National Ballet's new season is one of the highlights of my year. It is always a grand affair, the gentlemen in dinner jackets and the ladies in gorgeous evening attire.  The Music Theatre (or Stopera as the building that combines Amsterdam's city hall (Stadhuis) and opera house is unofficially called) is packed. The video on my review of last year's gala conveys some of the excitement and atmosphere.

At 19:30 the lights dim and the conductor enters the orchestra pit.  He (I have not yet seen a woman conduct an orchestra in the Music Theatre though I am sure many will do so in future) raises his baton and the orchestra plays the polonaise from The Sleeping Beauty.  The curtain rises to a row of children, the first-year students of the National Ballet Academy.  The first years are followed by the second and subsequent years, each year in different coloured uniforms.  The Academy is now under the direction of the magnificent Ernst Meisner, still a young man but already a widely acclaimed choreographer. He is also artistic coordinator of the Junior Company  The students are followed by the Junior Company, then the élèves, the corps de ballet, the coryphées, grands sujets, soloists and finally the principals. The women appear in dazzling white classical tutus and the men in dashing tunics. This is known as the Grand Défilé and although it is very simple it is an impressive spectacle.

The company then performs scenes from its current repertoire or works that are staged specially for the occasion.  There is always something from Hans van Manen, usually something from one of the other great Dutch choreographers, Rudi van Dantzig and Toer van Schayk and often works by the company's artistic director, Ted Brandsen, David Dawson, Juanjo Arques and, of course, Meisner.  I particularly look forward to Meisner's works because his choreography appeals to me more than almost any other. His Embers and  No Time Before Time are among the most beautiful works that I have ever seen and I can't watch them without emotions welling up. Much of Meisner's work has been created for the Junior Company who must be the 12 most beautiful dancers on the planet.  Their performance is always the highlight of my evening much as I admire the company's principals and other fine dancers.

Brandsen usually makes two speeches at the gala.  One to welcome the audience and introduce the show.  The other to present the prima ballerina, Alexandra Radius, in whose name the company's Friends award a prize to the dancer of the year.  Usually, the winner is a principal but last year it was Timothy van Poucke who joined the Junior Company in 2016. Brandsen usually delivers long passages of his speeches in English as many members of the audience are from countries other than the Netherlands.

The gala is always a party.  Wine, beer, soft drinks and canapés are offered the moment guests enter the theatre.  The hospitality continues during the interval and after the show.  As soon as they have changed the dancers make a grand entrance down the staircase of the lobby.   This is the audience's chance to mingle with their heroes and heroines and perhaps dance with them in the disco at the entrance to the theatre.  In that regard, anyone can say that he or she has danced with the Dutch National Ballet in the Music Theatre.

This year's gala was a little different from previous years.  For a start, it seemed to be shorter.  Only five pieces were performed in the first half and one on the second.   There was no performance by the Junior Company as such though some of its members were in other pieces.  Nor was there any work by Meisner.  I would have been a little disappointed had I not reminded myself that I had seen the Junior Company at the Linbury in July for the first time in several years (see Welcome Back! Junior Company returns to the Linbury 6 July 2019) as well as in Dancers of Tomorrow at the Music Theatre a few days later.  The third way in which this year's gala differed from previous years was that Brandsen delivered his entire speech in Dutch which is not unreasonable since the show took place in Amsterdam.  Dutch is the first cousin to both English and German which I studied at secondary school and as I visit the Netherlands several times a year I have picked up a little bit of the language. I think I understood most of the director's speeches.

Despite those differences, I enjoyed the gala very much indeed,  Matthew Rowe, one of my favourite conductors, lifted his baton. The Grand Défilé was as impressive as ever.  Having seen those excellent young dancers in Dancers of Tomorrow in July I felt particularly close to them.  I am doing my best to support the Academy in any way I can and I hope that I will be able to arrange for funding through lifetime gifts or legacies for talented young dancers like Conor Walmsley who studied in Amsterdam, joined the Junior Company and has recently graduated into the senior company.

The show continued with the pas de deux in Diamonds from Balanchine's Jewels by Xander Parish and Maria Khoreva from the Mariinsky.  I have been following Parish's career since July 2007 when he and his sister Demelza appeared at A Summer Gala of Dance and Song at the Grand Opera House in York.  I did not blog about ballet in those days but Charles Hutchinson of The Press reviewed the show.   Those two young dancers performed with the likes of Samara Downs and Marianela Nuñez but it was their piece that impressed the audience the most and it has been etched in my memory ever since.  Since then I have seen Parish in London as Romeo in 2914 and in Ballet 101 in Leeds in Northern Ballet's 45th-anniversary gala.  I also had the pleasure of meeting him at the London Ballet Circle. Parish has always thrilled me but his performance on Tuesday was masterly. He commanded the audience's attention like a king. I do not recall seeing Khoreva before but I shall follow her in future.  Not only did she partner him well. She showed considerable virtuosity in her solo.  That pas de deux alone justified the trek to Amsterdam.

Parish and Khoreva were followed by Maia Makhateli and Young Gyo Choi in a pas de deux from Le Corsaire.  I was very puzzled by the programme note for it stated that the piece was created by Samuel Andrianov and premiered at the Mariinsky Theatre on 12 Jan 1915. As the music for Le Corsaire was composed by Adolphe Adam who wrote the score for Giselle I knew that this ballet must be very much older.  According to Wikipedia, it was first performed in Paris in 1856 but all modern productions are based on Marius Petipa's of 1863. I had never heard of Andrianov until I read the article on Balanchine in the French Wikipedia where I learned that he had been one of Balanchine's teachers. There is no similar mention in the English article.  A short paragraph on the piece in Dutch - not a language that I have ever studied formally so I may well have got the wrong end of the stick - the piece was created for students and was introduced to the Netherlands by Rudolf Nureyev in 1965. That would make sense for Young is a powerful dancer who reminds me of Nureyev. Makhateli is always a delight to watch.  The crowd was delighted.

The only work that seemed to be completely unconnected with Balanchine was van Manen's Trois Gnossiennes.  This was set to a piano score by Erik Satie which was earlier used by Sir Frederick Ashton in an orchestrated version for his Monotones.  Van Manen uses a single piano played by Olga Khoziainova mounted on a platform on castors which was pushed gently around the stage by four young male dancers. The dancers were Igone de Jongh and  Jakob Feyferlik of the Vienna State Opera House's Ballet Company.  It was very beautiful.   I just can't make up my mind whether I prefer van Manen's work or Ashton's.

The last work of the first part of the gala was the first of Balanchine's Symphony in Three Movements to the score by Stravinsky by the same name.   This is a work for 12 dancers including 6 soloists - Quian Liu and Young Gyu Choi, Anna Tsygankova and James Stout and Floor Eimers and Jozef Varga.   This is an exuberant piece with a lively score. The women wore simple leotards and their hair in ponytails.  It was fast and slick and left the audience on a high.

As in previous years, complimentary drinks and savouries were served during the interval.  These were a bit different from ours in that chunks of cheese, ham or sausage were served without bread or biscuit. I took a sample of each of them as well as a glass of quite potable wine.  I have got to know some of the Dutch ballet goers over the years and met several in the lobby. I usually find myself at the merchandise stand buying cards or t-shirts for friends in England but, as that stand has disappeared on Tuesday, I took advantage of the interval to stand on one of the terraces overlooking the Amsel and take in the September night air.

After we had returned to our seats, Brandsen stepped back on stage and announced that the time had come for the Alexandra Radius award.  He explained that the money had been raised by Friends of the company and asked us to stick up our hands.  At least, I think that is what he said because the conversation was entirely in Dutch.  He then introduced Alexandra Radius who is still beautiful.  He announced that the winner of the 2019 prize was Edo Wijnen and played a short film which showed Wijnen's achievements. Radius presented Wijnen with his prize which included a trophy.  He gave a short acceptance speech part of which was in English. Both he and Radius received enormous bouquets.

The rest of the evening was taken up with Balanchine's Who Cares? A great celebration of New York to the music of George Gershwin and Hershi Kay.  Readers can gain an idea of the energy and exuberance of the piece from the YouTube trailer. De Jongh and Makhateli performed solos in the piece together with Vera Tsyganova and Constantine Allen who joined the Dutch National Ballet only in 2018.  I think this was the first time that I had seen him and it will certainly not be the last   Yet again the audience rewarded the dancers with a standing ovation. One that they truly deserved.

Last year I missed the party because one of my guests was a child. This year I stayed and met many friends and acquaintances from the company and the audience.  I had been looking out for Xander Parish, Ernst Meisner, Michaela DePrince and Matthew Rowe but I did not encounter any of them. Hardly surprising as the crowd was massive and the noise deafening.  As far as I know, no British company holds a party for its audience after a gala like this.  That is a shame because it is one of the reasons why every Dutch person I know has great pride and great affection for the national company even if he or she never actually attends any of its performances.