On the evening of October 18th 2012 at Lincoln Center's David H. Koch Theater, "Stars of the 21st Century" offered a one-night-only smorgasbord of international dance that was definitely enjoyable but not as consistently stellar as the name would imply. Produced by the husband and wife team of Solomon Tencer and Nadia Veselova Tencer, the touring gala that plays on stages around the world is celebrating its 20th anniversary season and its 12th annual visit to New York City. Yet for all of its staying power, the event never quite lived up to the marketing hype that preceded it.
Nadia gave the curtain speech. Looking gorgeous in a lipstick red gown slit to the thigh that showed off her still perfectly sculptured legs, she milked the dancegoers for applause by pausing dramatically after she announced, in her charming Russian accent, every one of the ballet companies on the roster. For many of us, though, that didn't distract from the glaring absence of an orchestra in the pit. In fact, members of the local musicians' union had been outside the theater before the performance handing out flyers with a quote from Balanchine ("See the music. Hear the dance.") and a plea to call the management saying that Lincoln Center "must remain true to its founding mission and champion live music." (In case you want to make your voice heard for this cause, here's the number: 212.870.5570.)
Beyond that though, the press materials trumpeted all the wrong performers. For example, we were advised that we would be treated to the "rare New York appearances of the exquisite award-winning dancers such as Ukraine's Katerina Chebykina and the Maryinsky's Maria Shirinkina." Unfortunately, these two ballerinas were the least accomplished of the lot. A little sleuthing via Google turned up the fact that Chebykina's award was third prize in 2010 in the junior division of the relatively obscure Yuri Grigorovich International Competition “Young Ballet of the World”. Her rendition of the "Don Quixote Pas de Deux" on the Koch stage was seriously underwhelming. She did not do the Petipa choreography for Kitri's variation so those of us who look forward to seeing that warhorse now and then were disappointed when she skipped the trademark hops altogether. In the coda, instead of the requisite 32 fouettés, she managed only 24 sloppy turns with none of the flourishes we've come to take for granted in the 21st century. Then she unaccountably took a series of bows with the music on hold while the pained audience politely applauded. Her partner, the more skilled and seasoned Denis Matvienko, did somewhat better as Basil but while his turns were admirable, he was less than airborne in the jumps.
As for Shirinkina, she and Vladimir Shklayrov were fine in Yuri Smekalov's "Parting" in the first act but not when they danced Balanchine's "Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux" in the second act. Neither of the two delivered the goods that the knowledgeable New York audience expected. The dancers' smiles seemed to have been coached and they came across, to quote the SAB alumna who was my companion for the evening, as "phony." And Shirinkina didn't do the daredevil dive at the end of the coda but substituted a much tamer maneuver that looked something like the "Sleeping Beauty" fish lock. Don't mess with Balanchine on his home turf!
OK, I'm finished complaining. Most of the dancing was glorious. For starters, the opening duo from the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in an excerpt from Judith Jamison's "Reminiscin'", was as good as it gets. Kudos to Alicia Graf Mack and Jamar Roberts as well as to Jamison for an unforgettable offering.
Following that, a series of contemporary duets was excellent. The biggest surprise for me was the pas de deux from John Neumeier's "The Lady of the Camellias", danced by Lucia Lacarra and Marion Dino of Bayerisches Staatsballett Munich. Claudia La Rocca panned ABT's 2011 revival of the 1978 ballet in a review in The New York Times so although I hadn't seen the ballet that year, I was prepared for the worst. Instead, what unfolded was truly beautiful. Even the consumptive heroine's mimed coughs were believable and poignant.
In the second act, the remarkable Desmond Richardson of Complexions Contemporary Ballet was mesmerizing in the "Moonlight Solo" from "Frames." Also, we were given one last chance to see an NYC performance by the well-loved Vladimir Malakov. He danced Angelin Preljocaj's "Le Parc" with Nadia Saidakova. Malakov, a former ABT principal, now directs the Staatsballett Berlin.
Ah, but the best was saved for last. Olga Smirnova and Semyon Chudin from the Bolshoi gave the most satisfying performance I have ever seen of "Grand Pas Classique." She is a mere 19 years old but she has been taking Moscow by storm, and for good reason. What I liked most of all was that she did 32 clean fouettés on a dime with no apparent strain, no tricks, and a genuine smile. I'd rather see that than all the circus-y competition moves in the world. Also wonderful were Chudin's brisés and entrechat six sequences as well as Smirnova and Chudin perfectly synched in the series of entrechat quatres.
The performance ended with a défilé for the entire ensemble choreographed by Nadia Veselova Tencer to the finale and apotheosis of "Sleeping Beauty." It was just plain fun and everyone left in an ebullient mood. Maybe that touch of smart showmanship is one of the reasons the event endures year after year in spite of being ragged in spots. That, and the fact that gala staples are kept to a minimum while newer works are of the highest quality. Would I go again next year? You bet I would! And if you get the chance, I hope you will, too.