Guess what turned up at the Rose Theater last week? A program called “World Ballet Stars,” brought to us under the auspices of (and in benefit of) the Romanian National Ballet. Who knew? We do know that Romania produced one of the world’s finest ballerinas, Alina Cojocaru, who for more than a decade has been London’s pride—and ours, too, when she’s made one of her rare guest appearances with A.B.T. And indeed she proved to be the heart and soul of this touchingly naive event, appearing in five of its thirteen offerings and closing the evening with one of the most sincere and self-effacing (and longest) speech of gratitude and thanks that I’ve ever encountered. This young woman is as charming, as delectable, a person as she is a dancer.
But what was the program itself? A little bit of this, a little bit of that, and then a lot more of this and a lot more of that. Weirdly, it began with Cojocaru giving us the famous “Rose Adagio” from The Sleeping Beauty and handily pulling off its notoriously treacherous balances with no more than the usual wariness. I say “weird” because this famous passage is a grand climax, not an opener—and to see it on a naked stage with the four Princes in black pants and white shirts and no King, Queen, or courtiers observing, is a jarring and distressing experience. Later she danced three soupy melodramatic roles, two to Liszt and one to Chopin, all in the same dramatic palette and none particularly suited to her persona: Marguerite and Armand (excerpts only, praise the Lord), the famous applause-trap Frederick Ashton whipped up for Fonteyn and Nureyev, and which should have died with them; a pas de deux from John Neumeier’s tedious The Lady of the Camelias—Marguerite and Armand making a return appearance, only infinitely less interesting); and a puerile pas de deux from something called No Man’s Land by the young English choreographer Liam Scarlett, in which yet again a lady in swoony garb suffers and suffers.
Fortunately, the final number on the program gave us a happier and livelier Cojocaru in a recent minor but amusing piece by her fiancé, Johan Kobborg, that elegant dancer from the Royal Ballet who’s the new artistic director of the Romanian company. Two virtuoso guys—our own Daniel Ulbricht (City Ballet) and Shuhei Yoshida of the home company—pull out all the stops in an affectionate competition for her favor, all three of them also flirting with the superb violinist Kurt Nikkanen. (His partner, the excellent pianist Matei Varga, is no slouch either—he held things together through much of the evening.)
Given that this was a gala, we had to have a couple of standard classical pas de deux. There was the one from Le Corsaire (another Fonteyn-Nureyev special)—the one in which the bare-chested guy with the feather in his hair ends up on the floor arching upwards. (It was a last-minute replacement for the one from Diana and Acteon, but in the famous phrase, that’s a difference without a distinction.) And there was the “Black Swan” pas de deux, featuring one of the famous guest artists, Tamara Rojo, who runs the English National Ballet, where Cojocaru is now dancing. Rojo is vastly capable, but for me she’s always lacked a strong dance personality—her Odile is powerful, but where’s the glittering malice, the irresistible seductiveness? The inevitable 32 fouettés were swell (except for a last-moment faltering), but who cares? You’ve seen 32 of them, you’ve seen too many.
Another famous ballerina, the Russian prima Ulyana Lopatkina, danced that other gala swan, Fokine’s Dying one. It was generous of Lopatkina to come all this way in support of Cojocaru and Romania, and the audience responded enthusiastically as it always does to her beauty and her ravishing plastique—but she doesn’t have much to tell us about this role. When Ulanova danced it, it was about death. When Plisetskaya danced it, it was about a bird in terminal distress. Lopatkina has nothing to tell us except that she’s a glorious, sincere presence.
There were appearances by a number of dancers from the Romanian company, and they all looked well-trained and eager, even those who gave us a terrible tango from a piece by the Romanian choreographer Edward Clug. (He was also represented by an excerpt from his popular Radio and Juliet, music by Radiohead—in this version, Juliet survives. I once saw all of it, which was more interesting than the excerpt.) Etc., etc.
As a gala, this was a flawed event, yet the earnestness of the dancing and the pride and conviction of everyone involved made a happy impression. But you can’t judge a ballet company without seeing it with its corps, in complete ballets. “World Ballet Stars” didn’t put the Romanian National Ballet at the top of our list, but at least it let us know it was on the map. Good luck to you, Alina, Johan, and all your colleagues.