Choreography: Marius Petipa, August Bournonville, Kenneth MacMillan, Michael Fokine, Agrippina Vaganova, Ben Stevenson, Gustavo Mollajoli, Ben Van Cauwenbergh, Carlos Acosta, Raul Reinoso, Georges Garcia
Reviewer: Peter Jacobs
After a glittering career as one of the most iconic dancers of his generation, Carlos Acosta presents A Classical Farewell, his final programme of classical dance, as his career transitions to the future. Although, in truth, the programme is a mix of classics and newer pieces from his more recent repertoire. Acosta brings with him a selection of talented Cuban dancers – his home country – and the evening is solidly underpinned by the Manchester Camerata, conducted by Paul Murphy.
The curtain rises to reveal a deceptively-bare, stripped-back stage, but the setting is a practice room: there is a barre, clothes rails, two chrome and leather couches. As the overture plays, Acosta appears, a holdall on his shoulder and does some simple leg stretches. The rest of the cast arrives as a crowd, in a mix of practice clothes and costume, and the ensemble greet one another and start to arrange their things and stretch. Side flies drop into place and finally a black rear curtain drops to conceal the scene and two dancers appear from the wings to perform the White Swan pas de deux from Swan Lake, Act 2.
This familiar piece is nicely performed by Gabriela Lugo and Enrique Corrales. Very much a ballerina showcase, her poise and balance and flexibility impress, but somehow, isolated, with no narrative journey to this point in the relationship, the emotion seems frozen and false, but a fine demonstration of a duet that will be familiar to most ballet audiences.
This issue of isolating an extract out of context continues with the Act 2 pas de deux from La Sylphide: not a ballet Manchester audiences get much opportunity to see these days. This 1836 version is one of the oldest surviving ballets. Javier Rojas is a young highlander soon to be married and Deborah Sanchez is a dreamlike creature of the air. Bournonville choreographed the ballet for himself and gave the male lead extravagant sequences of jumps and tours en l’air, which Rojas delivers with great precision, his kilt flying thrillingly.
The show is framed by a practise room conceit, especially in the first half, as the dancers are revealed in preparation and then ‘on stage’ between each piece. Whether this conceit is intended to reveal the reality and effort behind the illusion of ballet perfection or to deconstruct the magic of theatre dance is up for debate. In any case, the back curtain rises and falls and Ely Regina Hernandez and Luis Valle perform the Winter Dreams pas de deux by Kenneth MacMillan. This one-act ballet from 1991 is based on Chekhov’s Three Sisters. In isolation the narrative is unclear but MacMillan’s choreography is glorious.
Next, is the well-known but rarely seen The Dying Swan, exquisitely performed by Gabriela Lugo, all limpid, broken arms and silently thunderous pas de bourees. It is a delight to see this, but as she walks off at the end and stretches, unhooking her bodice, it almost references Les Ballet Trockadero de Monte Carlo’s Ida Nevasayneva, who famously moults feathers throughout and keep snatching glances to see if the audience is still paying attention.
Finally in act one, Laura Rodriquez appears as Diana, the black backdrop now replaced with a dramatically-lit cyclorama, and then Carlos Acosta himself, in the briefest imaginable classical ballet costume. This pas de deux from La Esmeralda is a divertissement designed entirely to showcase the dancers virtuosity, and that’s exactly what it does. Rodriguez is electric and Acosta shows he can still dance with great skill, even if he lacks the lightness and flexibility of his Cuban recruits. But this is exactly what the audience has paid to see: Carlos Acosta. And he loves it.
The second act is mostly quite different in tone. It opens dramatically with Ben Stevenson’s award-winning End of Time pas de deux, choreographed to Rachmaninov, which examines the last two people on earth finding support through one another. Sanchez and Enrique Corrales are wonderful in this emotive and liquid choreography.
The cyclorama returns revealing a row of café tables and chairs for the next three linked but diverse pieces. A Buenos Aires by Gustavo Mollajoli, set to Astor Piazzolla, is a delight that could only have been improved by it being tango rather than tango-infused ballet. This is followed directly by Hernandez’s performance of Ben Van Cauwenbergh’s Je ne regrette rien, which, with its stylised moves and repeated motifs captures the drama of Piaf’s classic chant. This was at its best when it was more Pina and less ballet, but a lovely piece of work nonetheless. This linked neatly, French-style into Acosta’s showing of Van Cauwenbergh’s Les Bourgeois, set to the Jacques Brel song, which excellently showcased his dramatic and comedic abilities with great fun.
Back to a darker mood for Acosta’s own choreography for Carmen. The full piece received mixed reviews on its premiere for the Royal Ballet, but this pas de deux, performed by Rodriguez and Valle, is rather beautiful and distinctive. This glimpse of his choreographic abilities is one of the most intriguing things of the evening. Next to last sees the return of Gabriela Lugo for Raul Reinoso’s Anadromous – a new Cuban choreographer – and it is completely wonderful, with its remarkable fluidity of movement, emphasised by an extravagant silk costume and Lugo’s beautiful lines.
The show ends with the full company for Majismo, from a Cuban ballet from 1964 by Georges Garcia, set to Massenet’s Le Cid. This very Hispanic divertissement is a showcase for five pairs and seems hollow out of context from its narrative, full of posturing and sequences of lifts and spins. It may be one of Acosta’s greatest hits, and it is certainly crowd-pleasing, but it unravels much of the good work of the second act, while sending the audience into a frenzy, once the practise room motif has returned and the dancers have packed their bags and left, leaving Acosta to bathe in the adoration of his public.
A Classical Farewell is a very mixed and rather full bag. Twelve pieces of work spanning 200 or so years of classical and modern ballet. Generally, although very well performed, the classical works seem oddly frozen in time, detached from their narrative and staging. The more modern works are far more interesting and intriguing, perhaps because they suit this format better.
The audience response to the show was tremendous. Acosta has a dedicated following attracted by his unusual star power. His flamboyant,muscular style certainly soaks in admiration. The fact that he only performs in three of the twelve pieces certainly increases the cachet of seeing him actually dance.
There is nothing really not to like about the show – the dancers are superb and bright, the Manchester Camerata sounds great and Chris Davey’s lighting cleverly pulls the diverse elements together and sends them off in the right direction. But somehow, as a whole, it fails to satisfy, as if Acosta is trying to do too much and too little at the same time.
Runs until 15 May 2016 | Image: Contributed