Astana Ballet Presents – Royal Opera House, London

Choreographers: Mukaram Avakhri, Tati Aigul, Ricardo Amarante

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

Breaking things down into bite-sized chunks makes everything more digestible, and the arts is no exception. Before launching into War and Peace, you might start with a few short stories, likewise with ballet before tackling the classics, multi-performance programmes are a chance to sample different choreographic styles. For Kazakhstan’s Astana Ballet, it’s also a chance to introduce themselves to the UK audience as their first tour arrives at the Royal Opera House to present four very different dance pieces.

Formed in 2012, this relatively new ballet company is already building a reputation for creating dynamic shows that fuse ballet with a variety of other dance and cultural influences. Across the eclectic programme performed at the still fairly new Linbury Theatre within the Royal Opera House, three choreographers have taken the many forms and moods of love as their theme and drawn ideas from folk music, biblical epics and the drama of the tango in what is a memorable UK debut.

Ricardo Amarante’s pieces bookend the evening, opening with the 15-minute Love, Fear, Lossin which three couples present relationships inspired by the music of Edith Piaf. Couple One performs a breezy duet full of the light sweeping movements of a pair in the first flush before Couple Two replace them, bathed in orange light as the music develops a melancholy tone. Amarante’s choreography suggests the male dancer is shaping his partner, controlling her, building the pace as Couple Three create an intensity with fluid spins and throws.

Amarante contrasts this with the final performance, A Fuego Lentowith Argentine Tango shapes and steps perfectly integrated with balletic movements. One of the high points of the night, this 25-minute section contains six mini-performances as different couples create the tightly controlled ganchos, lunges and scissor-kicks that make this such a dramatic dance. Using the varying rhythms and intensity of the tango, the Astana company ably suggest the sultry street culture of Argentina in a fabulous finale.

One of the features of the Astana Ballet is the clarity of its storytelling and while influences are drawn from far and wide, there’s something almost operatic in its management of larger-scale drama. Mukarasm Avakhri’s 35-minute Act One production of Salomeis conceived as an almost elemental battle of the sexes. Kazbek Akhmediyarov’s Herod is a mystical conjurer as the ballet begins, conducting his enchanted minions to perform for him. Avakhri creates the fierce masculine shapes, drawing on the leaps and stomps of Russian and Eastern European dance to suggest the powerful world of men that Salome is about to upturn.

Fazil Say’s music is fast, with lots of heavy strings to amplify the overt drama of the staging but softened by the more feminine movements for Herodius and Salome that look to Middle Eastern influences for their hip-curved stance. But it’s the focus on the head of John the Baptist that adds the inevitable drive to destruction and Avakhri has Farkhad Buriyev rolls his head along an upturned table, a taster of his fate – a move Salome mirrors later in the piece – as well as a continual cradling of his head at key moments.

Some of the evening’s most visually impressive performances are part of The Heritage of the Great Steppe, six shorts woven together to celebrate folk traditions and particularly the feminine influence of women. Choreographed primarily by Tati Aigul there is a sense of heritage and national identity in these sections as groups of dancers in beautifully elaborate costume sweep across the stage in coordinated packs. Aigul pays particular attention to arms and hands in her work, creating whole narratives in the positioning of palms until a rather abrupt warlike ending with a very male aesthetic intrudes on the easy grace of the female performers.

As with all dance shows this one overshoots its 2 hour and 20-minute runtime by an additional 15 minutes which is partly the inevitably drawn-out curtain calls but also the reset time between the four shows which leaks a little of the momentum. And while this varied show is not necessarily what you might expect from a night at the ballet, it proves an endlessly fascinating one as the Astana Balletshowcase an extraordinary range of work that just about remains in harmony. Astana Ballet, welcome to the UK!

Runs Until: 14 September 2019 | Image: Askhat Nurekin

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A memorable debut

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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