Dazzled by Dance: The Ballet Gala

Two Sundays back, I traveled from Helsinki to Turku to see the Ballet Gala at the Turku Concert Hall. Part of the program of the Turku Music Festival, the gala program boasted familiar dancers of the Finnish National Ballet (FNB), international guest stars, and world premieres - how could I resist the invitation? It was a beautiful and sunny day in Turku, a perfect way to open the new ballet season. I wasn't alone, the foyer of the concert hall was filled by a large and cheerful crowd. During intermission, I even bumped into two of my ballet teachers - and it's not even our home town! This is my recap of the event.

Coda, all dancers on stage!
Photography Seilo Ristimäki. 

Sunny Sunday in Turku, Finland. 

The gala program opened with an excerpt from the iconic "Grand Pas Classique", a much loved staple of ballet galas and competitions alike. Choreographed by Victor Gsovsky (mus. Daniel Auber) and first performed at the Theatre de Champs-Elysées in 1949, it is essentially an homage to the purity and precision of the classical line, and demands virtuoso skill as well as refined elegance from its performers. The "Grand Pas" is probably one of the most difficult pas de deux, because every detail has to be just right, or it will look very wrong. Classical ballet can be so unforgiving, but that's why dancers put in the hard work and long hours, to turn their bodies (and minds) into precision instruments that embody and express the intricacies of choreography and music. It's seriously amazing. I love ballet, and I've loved the Grand Pas Classique since I first saw it danced (on youtube) by the Paris Opera Ballet étoiles Elisabeth Platel and Nicolas Le Riche. It is simply sublime!

When you know what to expect, you tend expect a lot - and I was not disappointed. Jevgenija Plešková, a member of the Finnish National Ballet's corps, danced with beautiful poise, calm confidence and radiant expression. She nailed all of the tricky balances with ease, holding the position until the last possible count and synchronizing her finishes perfectly with those of her partner. It's one of those moments where you either opt for the safe, which is fine,  or push it to thrill. I love it when dancers are not afraid to take those risks! Plešková was partnered by the no less confident Michal Krčmář, principal dancer with FNB and artistic coordinator of the event, and stepping in for the injured Florian Modan. Last minute changes to casting are not unusual in ballet, injuries happen even to the most seasoned dancers. "It's part of the job," Florian replied when I told him how sorry I was that he had to sit out the show. I hope he gets well soon! As for Michal Krčmář stepping in, well, I'm always happy to see him dance. The only thing that I missed from their pas de deux was the rest of it... I would have loved to see the entire Grand Pas Classique, with the solos and coda. Even so, it was a very elegant appetizer to get the evening started.

The piece following could not have been more different. In that sense the title of the event, "Ballet Gala" was somewhat misleading, unless you accept the term "ballet" to include contemporary dance as well. As much as I love ballet, some of the contemporary works I've seen in the past 10 years or so, have had a more profound impact on me than the purely classical works of ballet. So I always keep my mind open, and try to watch and experience contemporary choreographies without preconceived opinions.

Anu Sistonen's choreography "Secret Charm" (mus. Emre Sevindik), danced by her long-time collaborator Jonna Aaltonen, did not capture me immediately. The twisty, jerky movement I felt l had seen before, and I'm not a big fan of drawn-out solos where you feel left out of the conversation... What motivates the movement? Is there a purpose, a story? At the same time I was intrigued by the very big pile of crumpled newspapers on one side of the stage, surely that prop had to have more that a decorative purpose... As I kept watching, the movement aesthetic came more apparent, and I was fascinated by the intensity and full-out abandon of Jonna Aaltonen's dancing. And when she finally made use of the newspapers, the piece really took off for me.

Anu Sistonen: Secret Charm, dancer Jonna Aaltonen.
Photography by Seilo Ristimäki. 

After the intermission, it was back to classical ballet, this time with Don Quixote. Another huge audience favorite, Don Q lends itself supremely well to galas and comps alike, but I have to say that the stage of Turku's Concert Hall was not ideally suited. Rather small in size, no backdrop (just a bare white wall), black half screens instead of curtains, not to mention an audibly hard and visibly slippery floor... In contrast to the full glory of tutus and tiaras, poise and presence, the stage of the concert hall seemed a tad underdressed. And when I first heard those loud thumps in grand allegro, I worried for the dancers' safety. But, regardless of the hard floor, Michal Krčmář charming Basilio didn't hold back anything. He jumped his maneges with the bravado befitting his "étoile" status, and used the slippery floor to his best advantage, especially for the multiple grand pirouettes in seconde. It's not Don Q if you don't get thrilling turns from the star, and Misha certainly delivered. His Kitri of the night was danced by Alina Nanu, principal dancer with the Czech National Ballet. They made a beautiful match, both in charm and skill. The famous one-handed lift where the ballerina holds her position in a full split: wow. The jumps, the turns, the solos, the coda, the fouetté pirouette, loved it. You could tell that they enjoyed themselves on stage, which is so important! As for the slippery floor, Nanu took no risks: her shoes were so squeaky, she must have rosined the hell out of them. But better safe than injured. I fear slippery dance floors more than icy roads in winter.

Alina Nanu, Michal Krčmář. Photography by Seilo Ristimäki.
Don Quixote was already a highlight of the evening, but not the last classic treat. We got to see a not-so-often seen "Pas d'Esclaves" from Le Corsaire, danced by FNB's principal Tiina Myllymäki and soloist Jonathan Rodrigues. Beautifully executed, especially considering that they had only a few days notice to practice, as Tiina stepped in for another injured dancer. When I talked to her after the show, she had seemed quite unfazed about it, telling me that she knew the variation from ballet school. Talk about muscle memory!

The main classical event of the gala was the guest performance by Laurretta Summerscales and Yonah Acosta, principal dancers with the Bavarian State Ballet (Bayerisches Staatsballett). They danced the famous pas de deux of Diana and Acteon, from the ballet La Esmeralda. Diana and Acteon is one of those classical numbers that presents itself to show-stopping displays of acrobatic tricks and bravado technique. It's here where you see the male dancer pull off the craziest jumps that I don't even know the names of. Barrel jumps with double splits? Acosta was amazing, is all I can say. And Laurretta Summerscales gets the award for the longest and most beautifully sustained balance in arabesque I have ever seen on stage! What a joy to see dancers of this calibre, a true pleasure.

Laurretta Summerscales, Yonah Acosta. Photography Seilo Ristimäki. 

Michal Krčmář was not only one of the dancers, but also one of the choreographers of the evening. He presented world premieres with two distinct works: "Laughing of Loving One", a playful boy-meets-girl story in the style of theatrical dance, but with a contemporary twist. Linda Haakana, principal dancer with FNB, and soloist Johan Pakkanen (FNB) infused their roles with gleeful mischief and great comedic timing. Danced to music by Sam Butters, The Andrews Sisters and Charles Berry, it was a delightfully entertaining crowd pleaser. Krčmář's second work "Filling Emptiness", set to the String Quartet No. 1 in F major, Op. 18, No. 1 by Ludwig van Beethoven,  and performed by a live string quartet, was much more sombre. Danced by a corps of three men and three women, it's a study in neoclassical lines and formations. I found myself interested to see more from Michal, but I don't know how his busy schedule as a principal dancer will permit extra work. The entire gala was produced and rehearsed by the dancers themselves (with Krčmář taking artistic lead), and outside of their regular work (read summer vacation). After returning late at night from the gala, it was morning class just as usual.

Michal Krčmář: Laughing of Loving One. Dancers Linda Haakana, Johan Pakkanen.
Photography Seilo Ristimäki. 

Between ballet and contemporary, there was also an interesting tango-meets-ballet number choreographed by professional ballroom dancers Jutta and Sami Helenius. I don't know enough about tango to give an expert review, but it's always interesting to see different styles of dance mixed together. You can play to the dancers' strengths, but also challenge them in ways that will create new movement quality altogether. Charlotte Schauman-Mäki and Ville Mäki looked elegant together.

A personal highlight for me was Emreçan Tanis' world premiere of "Isra", danced to music (Mehmet Tanis, Phillip Glass) performed by a live string quartet (Kreeta-Julia Heikkilä, Siljamari Heikinheimo, Dalia Stasevska, Joona Pulkkinen). Three dancers, Atte Kilpinen, Linda Haakana and Johan Pakkanen, and a free-standing video screen on one side of the stage. You see dancers first projected, then emerging from behind the screen, as if the privacy of their tragedy had been made public for all to see. Young Atte Kilpinen, semi-nude in form-fitting boy shorts, with his face pasted in chalky grey make-up, standing but motionless, there but not there. Linda Haakana and Johan Pakkanen manipulating his stiff form, arranging limbs, pushing and pulling (themselves in the process), as if the boy were a mannequin... It made me think of parents who lost a child, either through death or trauma. The loss of innocence, the heartbreak and strain it puts on the survivors... That's what it felt like to me. I was moved to tears, not just by the story (as I perceived it), but also by the dancing. Linda, Johan and Atte were all incredibly strong, so perfectly in tune with each other, there must be a deeper connection. But it was Atte Kilpinen who blew me away in his solo. You have the choreography and the musicians playing - and Atte acting as the conductor between them. Music flows through his body in ways you rarely see, but no doubt the credit has to go to choreographer Emreçan Tanis as well. Tanis is one to look out for, and I hope we get to see more of his work in the future.

The Ballet Gala also treated us to another work by Tanis, called " Separation Among Us", which I've seen before at the Kuopio Dance Festival. It's a solo for Atte Kilpinen, and just like before, he throws himself into with astounding and gravity-defying abandon. The story behind Separation Among Us" is dark and sad, but a story that needs to be retold. You can watch it on Vimeo (danced by Jernej Biziak). Separation Among Us won Third Prize at the International Solo-Tanz-Theater Festival in Stuttgart (2017).

All in all, it was a beautiful day for dance. I'm glad I traveled the 180 kilometers by bus, even if it meant lost sleep before a busy school week. Because great ballet (or dance in general) is always worth the extra mile (or a hundred). Thank you for an unforgettable experience!

Lots of love,

P.S. While the gala ticket was included in the invitation, this is not a commercial collaboration of any kind. Whether I decided to blog about the gala or not was up to me, and I'm free to express my own opinion. I also paid for my own bus fare to Turku (catching a ride back).

Photographs of Turku are my own.