English National Ballet – Ballets Russes [Programme 1]

Apollo

Apollo – Thomas Edur
Terpsichore – Agnes Oaks
Polyhymnia – Erina Takahashi
Calliope – Daria Klimentová

George Balanchine – Choreography
Igor Stravinsky – Music
David Mohr – Lighting
Karl Lagerfeld – Costumes

Le Spectre de la Rose

The Young Girl – Gina Brescianini
The Spirit of the Rose – Daniel Gaudiello

Mikhail Fokine – Choreography
Carl Maria von Weber – Music
Geoffrey Harman after Léon Bakst – Design

The Dying Swan

The Swan – Elena Glurdjidze

Mikhail Fokine – Choreography
Camille Saint-Saëns – Music
Karl Lagerfeld – Costume

Faun(e)

Esteban Berlanga
Raphaël Coumes-Marquet

Kevin Darvas & Chris Swithinbank (pianos)

David Dawson – Choreography
Claude Debussy – Music
David Dawson – Design & Lighting
Yumiko Takeshima – Costume Design

Schéhérazade

Zobeide – Elena Glurdjidze
The Golden Slave – Dmitri Gruzdyev
Shah Shahryar – Fabian Reimair
Shah Zeman – James Streeter
The Chief Eunuch – Daniel Jones

Dancers of the Company

Mikhail Fokine – Choreography
Nicholas Beriozoff – Restaging
Nickolai Rimsky-Korsakov – Music
Geoffrey Guy after Léon Bakst – Design & Lighting

The Orchestra of English National Ballet
Gavin Sutherland


Reviewed by: G. J. Dowler

Reviewed: 16 June, 2009
Venue: Sadler’s Wells Theatre, London

That English National Ballet is celebrating the centenary of the Ballets Russes is worthy of a five start review in itself. It is no exaggeration that the Ballets Russes shaped all ballet as we see it today; its influence was immense – the disapora of dancers and choreographers across the globe after Diaghilev’s death in 1929 meant that the seeds were sown for ballet worldwide, from what was to become The Royal Ballet in the UK to New York City Ballet in the States and even Australian Ballet.

Diaghilev’s artistic aesthetic set (and continues to set) the target for them all, yet none has ever quite reached the heights he scaled. In music he worked with and commissioned from the finest composers (Stravinsky, Strauss, Poulenc, Rimsky-Korsakov among others) and elicited designs from artists who would become known the world over (Picasso, Bakst, Goncharova, Laurencin, Chanel). He championed Mikhail Fokine’s choreography before turning subsequently to Nijinsky, Massine, Nijinska and Balanchine.

Paradoxically, the choreography was often the weakest element of the package, which may explain why relatively little of the output of the twenty-year life of the Ballets Russes survived beyond the first few years of existence. What this means is that if there is any chance at all of a Ballets Busses creation working today, it must be as it was meant to be seen – with full orchestra and complete designs. ENB has scored certainly on that count, and has been particularly careful with Le Spectre de la Rose and Schéhérazade in those terms.

Apollo opened the first programme, a late Ballets Russes work (1928) by the then very young George Balanchine, spotted early on by the ever-astute Diaghilev. He created a masterpiece. Fashioned for the company star of the time, Serge Lifar, it requires a dancer of immense charisma who can convince as the young god. ENB alas performs the work in a later form, which sees it shorn of the birth of Apollo and his first faltering steps. What this does is to present us with Apollo already with his lyre as the curtain rises – he literally plays with it before playing it, but this cannot be guessed because we do not see the nymphs give it to him in the first place.

Thomas Edur, retiring premier danseur with the company, took some time to get into his stride, and was unconvincing as the young god. With the arrival of the (here) evenly matched muses, matters settled down and Edur grew in intensity and depth of characterisation. Agnes Oaks (Edur’s wife in real life and also retiring at the end of this season) played Apollo’s preferred muse Terpsichore. She was blandly efficient, although did a nice line in the cat-who-got-the-cream smile to the other muses once she had been chosen. Both Klimentová and Takahashi are technically strong but missed the essential endings of their dances for the god. Indeed, there was a slight sloppiness in arm movements which worked against the effect of this sharp, Art Deco ballet.

Much was made of Karl Lagerfeld’s costumes for the ballet – Apollo wears what looks like a bandage for a wound in the flank and the women are in more floaty versions of what is the short chiton now used (the original designs were jettisoned by Balanchine in favour of a cleaner look). Lighting by David Mohr was superb, not least in the shower of golden light on Apollo and his muses as they struck their final poses on Mount Parnassus. Alas, the orchestra sounded groggy, flabbily conducted by music director Gavin Sutherland, who failed to highlight the pointed rhythms of the score. Apollo should be the visual and aural equivalent of a martini cocktail: dry, potent and incredibly chic. Here it has too much and was poorly mixed.

Lagerfeld had also created the tutu for the opening night’s performance of Fokine’s The Dying Swan. It was one of the most ill-conceived and ugly costumes I have ever seen – a mass of marabou which made the poor swan look more like an Aylesbury duck (there was even the hint of a tail on the tutu!). The Dying Swan also has nothing to do with Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes – it was created in 1905 and performed extensively by Anna Pavlova who danced with the company only in its first season (and not in that role). There is nothing really left of the original I suspect, and it is a load of kitsch in all reality, unworthy of revival, especially in a costume which makes the poor ballerina look fat.

Far better was Le Spectre de la Rose. Set to Weber’s l’Invitation à la Valse, it evokes the heady scents of pre-war Paris, rose of Attar, a heavy-lidded romanticism. I have never seen the Bakst designs for the Young Girl’s drawing room so completely and beautifully realised – real windows, left open through which the Spirit of the Rose will jump, a wonderful evening coat which is shed in the first seconds as the Young Girl returns from the ball. It was a fairly convincing version of the work in fact – it often suffers at the hands of some and departs radically from what was created in 1911.

Two guest dancers from The Australian Ballet performed it and worked hard: Gina Brescianini started well, eyes closed for most of the time in her reverie. She spoilt it when she smiled a broad grin, showing her all-too-New World teeth, and the closing moments were a little histrionic. No role in ballet is perhaps more identified with one dancer than the Spirit and Nijinsky, so much so that one wonders how anyone ever has the courage to do it. Additionally, everyone seems to know how the ballet should be danced, even though no-one is alive who saw it done by the great Nijinsky. Daniel Gaudiello is a little too rangy for the part – Nijinsky was famously squat and powerfully muscled – and at times a little too human, but he also used his arms with sensitivity (the curlicues fingers and arms were a sensation in 1911 by virtue of their femininity).

David Dawson is a British choreographer who is presently resident at the ballet company in Dresden and has worked extensively across Europe and further afield. His A Million Kisses to my Skin for ENB was a great hit, showing a slightly generic neo-classical style, but fair musicality and a good eye for line. Faun(e) is not a success. As a stand-alone, with no link to the Ballets Russes and L’Aprés-midi d’un faune, Nijinsky’s first essay in choreography in 1912, it might; if it wasn’t to a two piano version of the Debussy, it might; but it doesn’t. Set for two dancers, it is inexplicable: a lone dancer (Raphaël Coumes-Marquet from Dresden Semperoper ballet), gyrates and flexes, turns and jumps and is then joined by ENB’s Esteban Berlanga and matters become distinctly charged – a clear homoerotic atmosphere is created, with Berlanga definitely the ‘junior’ partner. There is much looking and admiration, but little or no contact. Berlanga is left to dance alone at the end. The link with the music is tenuous (the work starts in silence which is always a bad sign for musicality) and the costumes are horrendous – bat-wing top, Cinderella skirt and bed socks. Ghastly.

Schéhérazade (1910) was the sensation of the Ballets Russes season chiefly on account of its sensational designs by Léon Bakst. These are recreated by Geoffrey Guy and are hugely successful – the blues, purples and greens of the set and the rich oranges and reds of the costumes are sumptuous and provoke the requisite audience gasp. This is just as well, because Fokine’s choreography is not hugely distinguished; not that that is the point of Schéhérazade – it is all about overblown melodrama and sexual desire. It is now a little tame, but the essence remains and it’s a crowd pleaser: Elena Glurdize was suitably pliant as Zobeide, the Shah’s favourite, but Dmitri Gruzdyev as the Golden Slave was essentially sexless; he executed his beefed-up solos well enough, but evoked nothing of the dangerous, pantherine allure that Nijinsky brought originally to the role.

The orchestra, after its dull start with the Stravinsky, pulled itself together for the richer textures of the Weber and the Rimsky-Korsakov, although certain solos were marred by uncertain pitch and unsure technique.

However, three cheers then the ENB, for if all was not perfect, at least it is celebrating the Ballets Russes in style with two generous programmes – which is more than can be said for all the other national companies in the UK.

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