Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Ballet Extravaganza: Saniya Abilmajinova's Follow Your Dreams

Saniya Abilmajinova with the Ballet Jörgen ensemble performing the Walpurgis Night ballet from Faust. (Photo: Jakub Kracmar)

To celebrate her 15-year dancing career, Saniya Abilmajinova gave herself the gift of a ballet gala which she presented – at her own expense – at the Toronto Centre for the Arts for two performances only, May 19 and 20. The Uzbekistan-born dancer, recently made a Canadian citizen, called her two-hour program Follow Your Dreams, an inspirational title suggesting an unwavering commitment to a personal goal. Rising repeatedly up on her pointes to perform the lion’s share of the work, both classical and contemporary, Abilmajinova never once lost hold of the electrifying elegance which makes her, a tiny dancer with an outsized talent, such a delight to watch.

A graduate of the Choreography College in Moscow, Abilmajinova started her professional career in Russia as a first soloist with the Natalya Sats Musical Theatre, a Moscow-based company specializing in ballet, theatre, and opera productions for children. She quickly distinguished herself, becoming a two-time medalist at the International Ballet Competition in Berlin (the silver in 2005 and the gold in 2007) and a semi-finalist at the International Ballet Competition in Moscow in 2009. That same year, she immigrated to Toronto to join Ballet Jörgen, a touring company routinely taking ballet across the country, often into far-flung communities where professional dance rarely ventures. In Canada, she found her dream job.


Ballet Jörgen has not only enabled Abilmajinova to continue the development of her art in a new country; it has provided her with a platform for sharing her award-winning talent with a new and often uninitiated public, and without star billing. Like everyone else in the plucky dance company which this year is celebrating its 30th anniversary, she pulls her weight as a versatile member of a small but hard-working ensemble. The company’s emphasis is on new creation – most of it choreographed by company founder Bengt Jörgen, a former National Ballet of Canada soloist trained in his native Sweden – pushing Abilmajinova to become an accomplished interpreter of modern as well as traditional ballet. For her DIY gala, to which she invited several members of Ballet Jörgen to participate, she presented a mixture of classical dance styles and work, further spotlighting her versatility. She divided the program in two, with excerpts from historic pieces dominating the first half and more recent creations in the second. Some of the older works came from ballets she might have first become acquainted with while training as a ballerina in Russia, where classical dance is like a religion, passionately worshipped and observed. They included The Little Humpbacked Horse (originally created for the Bolshoi in 1864) and Flames of Paris (originally created for the Kirov in 1932), important historical works seldom seen in Canada.

Abilmajinova in Fokine's Dying Swan. (Photo: Jakub Kracmar)

As rehearsed by Svea Eklof-Grey, the former Royal Winnipeg Ballet and Alberta Ballet principal dancer who today is Ballet Jörgen’s head coach (as well as Abilmajinova’s personal teacher), these technically demanding chestnuts of the classical repertoire shone with renewed brilliance. Sharp and dramatic, the dancing highlighted the virtuosity inherent to both works, one a glittering imperialist fantasy, the other a blazing Communist-era tribute to the anti-royalist zeal of the French Revolution. They are fascinating. Other examples from the classical repertoire included the grand pas de deux from Don Quixote, which Abilmajinova, partnered by fellow Ballet Jörgen company dancer Daniel Da Silva, detonated and set on fire with her sparking technique. Earlier in the program, and dressed in gauzy red harem pants and a six-pack-revealing crop top to match, she spun, soared and silkily stretched her way through the flower solo from La Bayadère, combining nuance with show-stopping dynamics. In the Walpurgis Night ballet taken from the 1859 Charles Gounod opera, Faust – and serving here as the program’s orgiastic finale – she played the tantalizing mistress at the centre of a Mephistophelean bacchanal. (It was her party; she could dance as much as she wanted to.) An excerpt from Swan Lake was also on the program, the Black Swan variation danced by guest artists Kirill Lordski and Julia Pochko, but it was weak. The less said of it the better.

As well as the classics, Abilmaijenova also showcased modern and contemporary works of choreography, notable examples being Michel Fokine’s Dying Swan solo of 1905 (Abilmajinova again), the pas de deux from Roland Petit’s hip-jutting 1949 version of Bizet’s Carmen (saucily danced by Annalie Liliemark and Adrian Ramírez Juarez, also of Ballet Jörgen), Vasili Vainonen’s thrilling Moszkowski Waltz (Giovanna Lamboglia and Leandro Prado performing) and Child of Darkness, a poetically poignant (and nowadays rarely viewed) duet excerpted from The Grey Goose of Silence, the ballet which the late Canadian choreographer Norbert Vesak, working with an Ann Mortifee score, had first created for North Carolina Dance Theatre in 1975. About the blind leading the blind – the woman is emotionally uncomprehending, the man physically without sight – the duet is both a philosophical and a sensual dialogue exploring people’s blind spots, and the impasses between them. Gifted the ballet by Vesak after having participated in the work’s original creation, Eklof-Grey coached Abilmajinova and Da Silva in this Canadian ballet rarity, guiding both to perform it with translucent feeling and a strong sense of connection. Heartbreakingly touching and vulnerable, their performance emerged as an evening highlight.

Abilmajinova and Daniel Da Silva in Vesak's Child of Darkness. (Photo: Jakub Kracmar)

Elsewhere on the program, new pieces of choreography put other dancers in the spotlight. They included Junior Gaspar Caballero, who catapulted through Angel Caido (Fallen Angel), a bravura solo punctuated by spring-loaded jumps which Gloria Oviedo choreographed to Mozart, and Momoka Matsui, who showed off her turbo-charged technique dancing New Life, a solo by the late Rei Aoo. Both Matsui, native of Japan, and Caballero, who heralds from Paraguay, are Ballet Jörgen dancers. Additional company members included Akari Fujiwara, one of four dancers performing the pas de quatre from The Little Humpbacked Horse, and Gustavo Hernadez, who joined forces with Fujiwara later in the evening to perform the crystalline pas de deux from Le Corsaire.

From the National Ballet of Canada came guest artists Elena Lobsanova and Naoya Ebe, principal dancers who performed 13 Preludes; Opus 32 No 5 in G Major, the rather grandiose title given a choreographically thin work which National Ballet first soloist and fledgling choreographer Brendan Saye set to music by Rachmaninov. Costumed in barely-there nude costumes and danced in soft slippers as opposed to pointes, the duet evolved through a series of sensually sculpted images that ultimately promised more than they delivered. The weave needed to be tighter, and the imagery more concentrated, for suspense to build and hold the audience’s attention. Saye is encouraged to keep at it, however. The potential was there.

Deirdre Kelly is a Toronto-based journalist, author and internationally recognized dance critic and style writer. She writes for Dance Magazine in New York, the Dance Gazette in London, and NUVO in Vancouver, and is a contributor to the International Dictionary of Ballet (St. James Press) and AWOL: Tales for Travel-Inspired Minds (Vintage Books). A staff writer at The Globe and Mail for the last 32 years, she was her newspaper's award-winning dance critic, from 1985 until 2001, before transitioning to the Style section as its senior fashion reporter in Milan, Paris, New York and cities across Canada. Her other accomplishments at Canada's paper of record include stints as an investigative reporter in the visual arts with a focus on art crime, a weekly lifestyle columnist covering the Toronto International Film Festival and celebrities, rock critic, business writer and cultural bureau chief in Montreal covering the arts in Quebec and Eastern Canada. The best-selling author of Paris Times Eight and Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, she has also written for a wide range of international titles, including Marie Claire in London, Elle in New York and Vogue Australia. Recipient of the 2014 Nathan Cohen Award for Excellence in Theatre Criticism (Long Form Category), Canada's most important arts writing prize, she is presently at work on her next book, an examination of The Beatles and their style. In 2017, she joined Toronto’s York University as Editor of the award-winning York University Magazine.

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