REVIEW: Ballet Russes programme 1. London Coliseum 24th March 2012.

 

Three key works of early twentieth century ballet being revisited in one evening, and all for a mere £10. And yet the auditorium was only half full. Either people are missing out, or it’s just another novelty Ballet Russes tribute that the public aren’t interested in.

 

For any enthusiast of 1900 modernist culture, the work of Sergei Diaghilev needs no introduction; if you don’t know of him, he’s definitely worth investigating. Through his work in connecting forward thinking composers, choreographers and costume designers such as Coco Channel, Diaghilev was a pioneer in the progress of ballet as an art form. 

 

Programme 1 (of 2) of Beyond Ballet Russes presented a re-interpretation of The Firebird choreographed by George Williamson, two contrasting versions of the Debussy/Nijinsky work of L’Après Midi d’un Faune and the grandeur that is The Rite of Spring, choreograped by Kenneth MacMillan.

 

The evening didn’t start with quite the same energy with which it ended. The Firebird was performed well, but seemed stagnant, stuck in a gulf between the classical form and a potential up-to-the-minute interpretation. The orchestra was also a little lacking in energy and played more wrong notes and poorly executed lines than you’d expect from such a high class orchestra. Parts were amazing, especially slower sections in which musical director Gavin Sutherland drew out all the nuances with precision and grace. The section most lacking in energy was the Finale which is normally a whirlwind of Stravinskian romanticism, but within the first few bars the wind was taken out of the sails. 

 

With the interval over L’Apres-Midi d’un Faune saw a near replica of the original Nijinsky choreography from the controversial premiere. Nijinsky’s eye for shape, form and subtle gesture were brought to life transcending the beautiful flow of traditional ballet and the simplicity of the boy-meets-girl story of love. Very provocative, and typically modernist. 

 

Following this was Faun(e); essentially the same music, yet set in a minimalist framing of an empty stage but for the two lidless pianos placed in either corner. The setting dramatically focused attention on the two male dancers and was truly captivating by the way in which David Dawson’s choreography took the lustful quality of Nijinsky into a different realm. There was a aura of reminiscence, such as that of discovering a bootleg record or the one-off concert in which you know you are experiencing a piece of art beautifully fragile in its undoubtedly short existence. Truly magical.

 

Saving the best till last was certainly the theme of the night and Kenneth MacMillan’s 1962 version of The Rite was a huge success in its ability to clearly build upon Nijinsky’s original choreography, yet bring it up to date with elements of street dance merging with traditional ballet and modernism. As the curtain rose forty dancers stood still, wrapped in a circle building anticipation for what was a hugely energetic performance from start to finish. 

 

The dark, mysterious costume design by Kinder Aggugini, minimalist staging and calculated use of lighting transformed this pagan sacrifice into an dark other-worldly ritual. The movement and formations were transfixing as they matched every displaced beat of Stravinsky’s relentless score with relative ease. 

 

Although generally together and well conducted, the orchestral performance had something of a Bernstein-like quality in stretching tempos and phrasing as if wringing out all of the harmonic goodness. For better or for worse, it never seemed consistent enough from section to section to be convincing compared with the countless performances and recordings. It was certainly played with more conviction than The Firebird, but was by no means the greatest of performances.

 

A mixed bag, but for those who enjoy variety it was worth every penny of the meager price. It seems a crying shame that this captivating programme didn’t attract attendees the same way as in which the more traditional and deeply repetitive runs of The Nutcracker, Swan Lake, Sleeping… draw in year after year. The auditorium was half full, two-thirds at best. Perhaps that’s what makes works like this all the more appealing.