Diaghilev was an intelligent man, and must have known what he was doing to the world of dance/art in the early 20th century. And one imagines, were he aware of the legacy he defined, he would be contented.
Now, in the beginnings of the 21st century, the contemporary era still references the Ballets Russes when aiming to define a newly creative epoch – hence English National Ballet’s current Coliseum performances of Beyond Ballets Russes (Programmes 1 & 2) from March 22nd – April 1st. The use of the word ‘beyond’ is appropriate when describing what ENB are aiming to do with this season, but it seems an odd prefix to Ballets Russes. Diaghilev’s ensemble were responsible for defining modernism as we know it in the world of dance/ballet – and if one views the ‘post’ in postmodern as purely chronological, have we in fact gone beyond modernism (or the Ballets Russes) to date?
The 1st programme was a quad-bill, opening with a world premiere of George Williamson’s The Firebird. The piece looked attractive in its sparsity, which in turn embellished the luxe costuming by David Bamber (of Tom Ford’s inner circle). Movement wise Williamson does have a gift, but I wonder whether this event may have been too big a commission for his talent to date. One can see the beginnings of a recognisable choreographic language burgeoning, specifically in his port de bras movement, as well as an original use of dynamics throughout; but he must be careful not to revert back to clichéd use of the spine (undulating) and hips (jutting) – as this has been done before – and better in the 1980s #williamforsythe. That being said, the work gave Ksenia Ovsyanick as the Firebird, a role to devour, which she did; and Adela Ramirez as the Lead Celebrity offered an enticing performance also.
Next came two works using the same Debussy score – Nijinsky’s L’Après-midi d’un faune, and David Dawson’s Faun(e) which premiered in 2009. The Nijinsky work was staged by the veteran dance notator Ann Hutchinson Guest, and was encased by a stunning Bakst backdrop (which felt worth the restaging alone). Nijinsky was an advocate of 2-d style movement, so the work took place in a shallow part of the stage; the spatial constraint defining that the dancers executed the work as it was first realised. Anton Lukovkin as the Faune was a tad lacklustre for me, as he didn’t seem to be quite ‘within’ the work as much as one needs to be, but Begona Cao as the lead Nymph took us back to 1912 for sure. She allowed the verdant score to do the talking whilst conveying large amounts of emotion through little to no movement – a clear demonstration of understanding the work’s subtlety and historical potency.
Next came Dawson’s offering which couldn’t have looked more different. The flat lifted to reveal the stage in its entirety, as in no wings or backdrop present, with two pianos/pianists and one male dancer occupying the space. During the work the first dancer was joined by a second who in turn closed the piece. Seeing the work premiere in 2009 I enjoyed it for what I thought it was – extreme movement questioning some of the key notions of the classical style i.e. a physical method of moving away from the centre of the body in an excessive, exploratory manner. This second viewing however, opened up a more narrative aspect to the work. Nijinsky suffered with mental illness (schizophrenia) when he retired from the limelight, and the two dancers seemed to represent the two sides that one person can inhabit. The end of the work saw the mature Nijinsky pointing to the audience relaying to his younger counterpart what was still out there to be conquered. The closing images of the novice Nijinsky dancing regardless of no music and the disappearing audience seemed to suggest the solitude that artistic passion can bestow. Though expertly danced by two guest artists – Raphaël Coumes-Marquet (Dresden) and Jan Casier (Antwerp), I couldn’t help but wonder why the company weren’t using their own, more than capable dancers!
The bill closed with Kenneth MacMillan’s The Rite of Spring. Taking inspiration from Nijinsky’s 1913 work, and using the same Stravinsky score, MacMillan created a more than satisfying vehicle for all who get to perform or observe it. The opening scene sees the onstage tribe introduced through ritualistic movement, firstly the adolescents, followed by the men and woman, culminating in an absolute frenzy before plunging into immediate darkness. Next, as the lights barely lift accompanied by one of Stravinsky’s haunting melodies, it is clear that the second and final scene has a different agenda. Six maidens feature before one is chosen to dance to her death in a sacrificial rite. The Chosen One, danced by Tamarin Stott, was a more than consummate performance. Her dramatic journey was clear throughout – from naive, to petrified, to beaten. Her face managing to communicate internal angst to the very back of the vast auditorium, and her lithe physique, a more than secure foundation for the taxing role. This restaging was newly designed by Kinder Aggugini. His high-fashion credentials were obvious in a good way with the bodysuits featuring intricate embroidery and communicating a ‘body-con’ feel, but the minute details were mostly lost due to the (at times) questionable lighting.
Programme 1 felt like a success, and left one eager for the 2nd instalment. The company dance mixed programmes proficiently, and with more financial security could become what they are known for. Ballets Russes served well as a starting point, but I left wondering whether the present day offerings created the same level of impact as the originals did.