Venue: Grand Opera House, York
Established in 1980, the Vienna Festival Ballet is helmed by artistic and executive director, and husband and wife, Peter and Gill Mallek. Gracing Grand Opera House York on their 35th anniversary gala performance tour, the ballet company showcased instantly identifiable dances and memorable characters from a very familiar repertoire. From the classic Swan Lake pas de deux and the dramatic narrative of Aurora’s birthday scene from Sleeping Beauty to a hip-hop sequence from the dwarves in Snow White and a jazzy contemporary number set to Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, there were high expectations from Vienna Festival Ballet’s ambitious line up.
The corps de ballet has always been a personal favourite, especially because the cheap tickets are always in the circles, where the audience can really see the configurations of the ensemble pieces from above. Beautifully staged and blocked, the corps pieces made great use of the Grand Opera House stage that was slightly cramped for ballet performances. The festive favourite, The Nutcracker’s ‘Waltz of the Snowflakes’ was wonderfully staged, the out-of-place disco ball finally put to good use as it reflected magical blue light that danced throughout the theatre.
Although the small cast meant that dances like Swan Lake lost a lot of their impact and gravitas because of the reduced corps, they were able to work within their limitations and get a sense of the original configuration. Ballet Mistress Emily Hufton’s restaging of the Snow White finale was exceptional, providing a visual spectacle for audiences in the higher circles.
However, probably the biggest disappointment was the lack of synchronicity of the corps de ballet dances. While the popular pieces like The Nutcracker and Swan Lake were obviously more rehearsed and tighter, the Cygnet sequence from the latter being by far the best ensemble performance, the corps lacked the strength of a unified ensemble. Dancers were always a shade off from one another in terms of timing, as some did not possess the same musicality as others.
Despite particularly strong corps performances by individuals such as Perdita-Jayne Lancaster, Emily-Joy Smith and Ben Cook, an ensemble is only as strong as the weakest member. Though charming with fantastic on-stage charisma, Luca Varone was at least two beats behind the rest in Snow White’s ‘Grand Finale’, painfully obvious during the group fouettes when his working leg was at a completely different position from the rest of the male dancers while doing their turns.
But the most outstanding dancer of the night was by far Emily-Joy Smith: a stand out in corps de ballet pieces and a brilliantly versatile soloist and principle. A principle dancer in almost all the dances, Doncaster-born Smith was able to adapt to each dance to suit each ballet. Exact, neat and precise, she was an incredibly graceful Odette, her amazingly expressive port de bras and extensions delicate and dramatic. However, when a reprise of the famous Swan Lake theme played at the end, she was not able to move from grace to the sufficient strength needed to match Tchaikovsky’s powerful theme and convey the nuance within the dance itself.
Unfortunately, the anniversary showcase was at best neat, but slightly mechanical and at worst, messy and far from uniform in this ballet of extremes.