Attending the English National Ballet’s Ballets Russes program so soon after the Diaghilev one at the Royal Ballet Opera House was actually far more fun than I’d expected it to be. Part of my reason for wanting to attend each of them was that I am fascinated by the Ballets Russes – the costumes! Nijinsky! – but have only had the most limited opportunities to see the ballets themselves, despite their legendary status (Firebird being the notable exception, as I’ve seen it twice – and while I’ve seen a few versions of Rite of Spring none have been the Diaghilev choreography). The list of productions I’ve heard about that were being featured was tremendous (woo Le Spectre de la Rose!) and sure to fill in some real gaps in my knowledge. And, fortunately, as it turned out, the ROH show was only extracts, meaning that as I arrived at Sadler’s Wells, I had developed a real thirst to see the whole of Scheheradaze. (I was actually a little confused about how one show had 20 pieces in it and the other only 5 – but I can say now that the ENB evening is all complete works – though I didn’t realize that it wasn’t “ Diaghilev’s “L’Apres-midi d’un Faune” that was presented, but a new work, “Faune(e), using the same music.) With two programs to choose from, I went for the one with more new works, program I (Apollo, Le Spectre de la Rose, The Dying Swan, Faun(e), Schéhérazade). I didn’t realize at the time about Faun(e), but I did see that program II‘s Rite was the MacMillan one, so not worth getting fussed about missing. My tickets were main floor, row R, about second from the back – and if you were wondering, they were great – my view was in no way obstructed. Win! (This is also a much better venue to see ENB than the London Coliseum – it’s so much more intimate. I hope ENB sticks to Sadler’s Wells – I’ll go see them more often if they do.)
I was excited to get to Sadler’s Wells and discover the night was sold out. I like the energy of a full house. Oddly, though there was a bunch of photographers outside, too! Apparently due to there being a premiere that night (and opening night) , a bunch of celebs had got free tickets for the show, including Stephen Fry and Jeremy Irons (photos here). I was actually surprised about all of the fuss (especially as I was worried for a bit that they weren’t going to let us in as we didn’t already have our tickets with us and were obviously not particularly important). I think these people ought to come to the ballet all the time, an not just when they have free tickets. Shame on them for coming so rarely that it warranted cameras! Ballet deserves better.
First up was “Apollo.” It’s hard for me to review this production because I just don’t like it. The cheesy props (the lute, the scroll, the mask, etc.) are corny and look like a Man Ray “Rayogram” – they make a pretty (static) picture but look painfully dated. I also loathe the worshipful way the women look at Apollo – it’s so over the top it’s like something out of a panto. Furthermore, the movement on heels makes the dancers look like clowns. There are a few pretty images – Apollo being led by the “chariot horses,” the bit where the three girls stand so their legs come out from Apollo like the rays of the sun – but mostly it just grates on me.
This performance also had its own issues. The three muses were gorgeous with their blonde (Agnes Oaks), brunette (Daria Klimentova), and raven (Erina Takahashi) hair, but they didn’t do well at dancing in unison, even failing to keep an even distance between them in some sections. Apollo (Thomas Edur) couldn’t lift two muses (not very God-like) without effort, and then when he was balancing Terpsichore (Oaks) on the back of his neck, he seemed to be struggling with her, like he was trying to arrange a sack of potatoes to take to market. This led to him putting her into position to lean against him, and he also was fumbling around getting her into place. It seemed kind of inexcusable. Terpsichore had great form – I loved how she held the curve of her body when he lifted her up over his shoulder and then rolled her back down to the ground – but Apollo was, sadly, not. It’s always the men that show the greatness of a ballet company, and Edur left ENB a little short. Perhaps some more rehearsal time and a few sessions at the gym would help.
As a side note – it was quite the deal that Karl Lagerflield had designed new costumes for this show. I liked Apollo’s all white look (goodbye to that corny gold belt!), with the sort of arrow-sling over his chest – but the ragged skirts of the muses looked sloppy. Goddesses know how to keep their skirts straight, especially when Mr. B set them dancing. Ah well.
Next up was Le Spectre de la Rose, with Gina Brescianini as “the young girl” and Daniel Gaudiello as the spirit of the rose. At first I was highly enthused about seeing this in a full production, with the bedroom set so nicely done and the open window. Brescianini’s costume still had an unfortunate Mrs. Tiggywinkle effect (thanks to the bonnet), but Gaudiello’s was … hmm. The flowers on the head seemed less pronounced, less pink, and the overall effect was … less like he’d just arisen fresh out of a pond scattered with petals than the one I’d seen at the Diaghilev gala. Even though the green leotard made him still look substantially undressed, it still just was not as sexy as the other one. And as he danced, rather than seeming like a wild spirit, he began to seem more like he had his smile painted on him. A lot of his leaps required minor readjustments after landing that … well, made me wish for the version I’d seen previously. Maybe it’s really hard to follow in Dmitri Gudanov’s steps. The performance still had the sense of a young woman being called into her passionate self by a supernatural creature, but the set didn’t make nearly as much of a difference in the end.
The Dying Swan (Elena Glurdjidze) I had high hopes for, after finding Uliana Lopatkina looking rather a bit too fresh out of chemotherapy for me to enjoy her performance wholeheartedly. It started well, despite the bizarre furry collar and the ill-fitting bodice (this was Chanel? – I thought maybe it had actually been made for someone else, it hung so poorly), but once she got on the floor … it was like she’d lost her concentration. Lopatkina was fully involved in the role, but Glurdjidze looked like she was thinking about what she needed to do. I understand that this was opening night, but, really, she should have been letting go a little bit more. I was disappointed.
Next was Faun(e), exciting because it was a world premiere (choreography by David Dawson) and something I wanted to see. The curtain opened on a bare set, stripped back to show the walls and some bits of set, with two pianos (Kevin Darvas and Chris Swithinbank) set up to perform the music. A tall man dressed in a green kilty-thing and an open necked shirt stood on stage, sliding his feet across the stage, then moving his legs, almost lazily … it was almost the direct opposite of what men are normally allowed to do on stage. It’s usually LEAPS and LEAPS AND TURNS and LIFTS and generally being macho. But he was graceful, showing that he had as much music in him as any female dancer did. He seemed to be dreaming along with the music. And as the music continued, he was joined by another man, and they danced together, with some lifts and some leaps, but, to me, mostly it was about expressing the pure joy of the music and not about doing showy male dancer moves. I liked it, but, to be honest, I don’t think it’s go the “oomph” to hold up against the other dances set to this music.
This left the final piece, Scheherazade, and let me tell you did they ever make the right choice in having this be the piece that closed the night. It had all of the pageantry and excesses of Firebird, then topped them further with, um, an onstage orgy (of course it was only simulated but it was really just the utter opposite of Ye Olde White Skirt Ballet). It was an Orientalist/Odalisque/harem fantasy, with gorgeous women dripping with sexuality (and wearing fantasy costumes that did appear to have a bit in common with traditional Turkish/central Asian looks) and apparently having nothing else on their minds once their overlord had left than satisfying their desires with something a little better than the palace eunuch (Daniel Jones, such a riot). Elena Glurdjidze was much more fun in this role (Zobeide), and displayed the incredible flexibility that I think is probably vital to this completely not-on-pointe ballet; and while her Golden Slave (Dmitri Gruzdyev if I’m not mistaken) and she didn’t create the painfully intense effect Lopatkina and Igor Zelensky had at the ROH (the bending and twisting were more exquisite, and Zelensky had no trouble lifting and balancing Lopatkina – yes, this problem reoccured here), still the overall emotional impact of this dance, ending with the death of all of the harem women and the male slaves with whom they had shared a few moments of joy, was far greater than it had been in the extract. I left feeling exhilirated and thinking I’d like nothing more than to sneak back on Thursday or Saturday and see this program again.
(This review is for a performance that took place on Tuesday, June 16th, 2009. English National Ballet’s two Ballets Russes programs continue at Sadler’s Wellls through Saturday, June 20th. For alternate reviews of this program, please see The Guardian, the Telegraph, or tweeter @GWDanceWriter – Graham Watts – at LondonDance.com.)