The first edition of the Awards handed out by the dance magazine BALLET2000 were in 2004 when Maya Plisetskaya was presented with the main Prix for her career and during which she danced Ave Maya created for her by Maurice Béjart. Fittingly, the Awards Gala this year was dedicated to the memory of the great Russian ballerina who died last year, and three special ‘Maya’ Awards – in the form of bronze statuettes of her dancing – were given out. Her husband, the composer Rodion Shchedrin, who played for her at the Palais des Festivals in Cannes 12 years ago, was in the audience.

The dancers receiving awards ranged from promising talents setting out on their career – Jacopo Tissi who was thrust into the spotlight last year as Prince Désiré with Svetlana Zakharova at La Scala – and those coming to the end of their performing life: Aurélie Dupont was performing for the last time as a freelance dancer as the following day, 1 August, would be her first as Director of the Paris Opera Ballet. Dupont was awarded one of the three Mayas as the “dance artiste who has concluded a remarkable career”. Unfortunately, she chose to perform Benjamin Millepied’s Together Alone with fellow POB dancer Alessio Carbone, but in the cavernous Palais des Festivals it communicated little.
Diana Vishneva and Friedmann Vogel with Hans van Manen

The two other Maya awardees were Diana Vishneva and Friedmann Vogel as Dancers of the Year. They performed Mauro Bigonzetti’s Vertigo, which didn’t give them a chance to showcase their considerable technical abilities, but it did show how a ballet dancer with the right temperament and intelligence can confront the contemporary repertoire credibly. There was nothing to suggest that here were two classical dancers uncomfortably grabbling with positions strange to them, like a small child trying on a pair of mum’s high heels. Rather like Baryshnikov who was at home in everything from Don Q to Tharp to Broadway hoofing, so Vishneva and Vogel were completely at ease with Bigonzetti’s moves: Dancers with a capital ‘D’… rare indeed.

Vishneva, of course, has made contemporary dance an equal partner along her career path for several years, seriously exploring the possibilities it can offer from Carlson to Graham, from Pendleton to Ek. She has even created her own contemporary festival, CONTEXT, which this year takes place in November in both Moscow and St Petersburg. Plisetskaya, too, had a curiosity about new choreography at a time when in Russia it was still a Pandora’s box, and it brought her to collaborate with Béjart, Petit and others. It was therefore pleasing to see Vishneva receive the Plisetskaya award as the two ballerinas had a special friendship; in fact, Vishneva has performed in all the important tributes to Plisetskaya over the past year.

There was a chance to see one of Bigonzetti’s latest pieces of choreography from his recent Cinderella created for La Scala, the company he now heads. I wasn’t very keen on the production when I saw it, and out of context the final pas de deux seems even more monotonous and awkward. Rather than a celebration of the coming together of the Prince and Cinderella, and of their love for one another, this piece suggests a struggle, an uncomfortableness, a scene of jealousy more than generosity. I imagine that these two won’t live happily ever after. Jacopo Tissi made an elegant Prince, when the choreography allowed him to expand to show his beautiful lines, and Virna Toppi made the most of a sluttish Princess who exposed more of herself that would seem seemly during a wedding celebration.

Another Italian in the line-up was Davide Dato, newly appointed Principal at Vienna. He is a fabulous dancer though, unfortunately, the Béjart piece that he presented, Arépo, is so short that just as you are settling into it you realise that he’s already left the stage.

More time was allotted to appreciate the notable talents of Spain’s Sergio Bernal who was strong, commanding and virile while swirling his capote and stamping his heels in Antonio Ruiz Soler’s choreography to music from Manuel De Falla’s The Three-Cornered Hat. He was rewarded with one of the most enthusiastic rounds of applause of the evening.

While on testosterone-infused manliness, another to bring the house down was English National Ballet’s Osiel Gouneo in Le Corsaire, showing off his multiple Cuban turns – just how do they teach that? – and impressive jumps with a good dose of eye-flashing personality.

In complete contrast was the precisely controlled slow-motion effect of Maëva Cotton and Alessio Passaquindici in Oscar Araiz’s hypnotising Adagietto set to the music from Mahler’s 5th Symphony. These two magnificent dancers with their intense complicity managed to instantly capture the attention of the 2,000-plus crowd as Cotton appeared to swim, apparently weightlessly, above the stage.

Less impressive was Jean-Christophe Maillot’s Lac. He is an outstanding choreographer, but here the quirky moves seemed to trivialise Tchaikovsky’s music, even though Anjara Ballesteros and Lucien Postlewaite perfectly conveyed their characters’ unbridled joy of being together; two teenagers in love. While injecting a few ballroom steps on this score might be fun because of the surprise, it felt gimmicky, rather like the cliché of opera singers jiving during a Mozart opera.

A piece that was fully satisfying was Gil Roman’s Anima Blues winningly performed by Oscar Chacon and Kateryna Shalkina who were sexy and witty with Roman’s beautifully judged choreography to Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s raw, soulful jazz.

Forceful Feelings, an all-male group of Armenian dancers, each one a performer with a major international company during the ‘season’, presented two pieces: Heinz Spoerli’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Serenity by Arsen Mehrabyan, one of the four dancers of the piece. Arman Grigoryan, Vahe Martirosyan, Arsen Mehrabyan and Tigran Mikayelyan were joined by Sarah-Jane Brodbeck, Galina Mihaylova and Mia Rudic, for the evening, allowing them to present Spoerli’s work, where confusions in the Athenian wood were shrouded in a fog which lasted until the interval, making it a very hazy day in Spain for Bernal’s number. Serenity made the biggest impact, with powerful movements and intent, underpinned, I’m guessing, by a political statement.

Hans van Manen, Irma Nioradze and Heinz Spoerli

A highlight, due to close the Gala, was the Don Quixote pas de deux with Viktoria Tereshkina and Vladimir Sklyarov. Nothing was announced about a change in programme, but Tereshkina was presumably ill because Sklyarov entered alone and danced, marvellously, Eric Gauthier’s Ballet 101. A crowd-pleaser, certainly, but also an ingenious demonstration of a dancer’s art. Sklyarov oozes personality which, combined with his formidable technique and musicality, earned him the triumphant reception he deserved.

Irma Nioradze, the Gala’s artistic director, presented the awards with BALLET2000’s Editor-in-chief Alfio Agostini, and both spoke a nonchalant French. Hans van Manen was present to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award after the interval, and the other awards came at the closing of the Gala though, curiously, all were presented downstage right, squeezed against the wings, where the long train on Nioradze’s dress became quite a hazard.

As rehearsals obviously hadn’t included this part of the evening, the final line-up had the two Dancers of the Year oddly positioned at the end instead of centre stage. It took the experience of Diana Vishneva to turn and applaud the projected Plisetskaya, at which point the focus justly returned to the woman whose memory the Gala was honouring.

Diana Vishneva, Friedmann Vogel, Osiel Gouneo, Vladimir Sklyarov and Jacopo Tissi