There is nothing like the faintest promise of Latin dance rhythms to bring out an avid audience, as Ballet Argentino found out for its British opening. Maybe people were enticed by the celebrity of the company's founder, even though Julio Bocca is more a name echoed across the Atlantic, given the rarity of his guest performances here. Either way, they received the showcase of mostly Argentine contemporary ballet enthusiastically and, with Ana Maria Stekelman's Piazzolla Tango Vivo, got everything they had come for.
Stekelman's homage to Bocca's and the company's national roots has an emphatically balletic spin, and I found the temperature tepid, the airy lifts and balances diluting tango's exciting split-second intricacy. Only Bocca's entrances truly heated up the stage, liberally dosed with sforzandos of the jumps and satiny turns that have been his passport to fame. Especially effective was the solo in which he could have been making love to a table, sliding above and around it, caressingly tilting against it.
With his long experience and confident technique, Bocca is inevitably the company's one star. Yet he doesn't play the star. He has assertive contours and a sweeping dynamic, but he also comes across as attractively ungrand, the archetypal boy next door. And he ensures that everyone has their chance to shine, in solos and pas de deux as well as in transparent ensembles.
For sure, there were plenty of all those in the rest of the programme. Adagietto, to the familiar Death in Venice Adagio from Mahler's Fifth Symphony, found Lucas Oliva and Cecilia Figaredo almost suspended in watery blue light and performing extremely slow Kama Sutra poses – soulful curves, uplifted arms, elaborate interlockings. I have liked Oscar Araiz's work in the past, but this reached a pinnacle of naffness.
Robert Hill's commissioned Encuentros (Encounters) would have been pleasantly classical if the dancing and bombastic piano concerto by Kurt Atterberg had known when to stop. The long middle movement found Rosana Perez twining round Bocca at such length, you felt you were being slowly throttled just watching, while the ensemble finale, where the dance motor kept reaching a close only to rev up again, made other protracted finales seem like rush jobs. By then we were too exhausted for Mauricio Wainrot's Desde Lejos (From Far Away), another suite of dances with some original and effective groupings, but not offering enough contrast to the other pieces.
Ballet Argentino uses simple means – with lighting as the only décor and rather poor-quality musical reproduction – but it has youthful beauty on its side. Most of the 12 dancers are clearly starting their careers, and their predecessors have often moved on to international companies. (Inaki Urlezaga, now a Royal Ballet principal, is a former member.) They are an object lesson in how polished presentation can convincingly overcome an absence of virtuosity. You don't have how to be the next Guillem or Bocca to be eminently watchable.
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