Andris Liepa introduces the ‘Diaghilev Festival’ to Jim Pritchard

Andris Liepa and Diaghilev Festival’: An interview by Jim Pritchard  (JPr)


Andris Liepa with Firebird costume
Photographer Kristyna Kashvili – Kashvili Images.

Andris Liepa has written ‘My entire life can be divided in three stages. Stage one – birth and childhood up to the age of eleven. Stage two – from age eleven to thirty-two, ballet school and performances at the world’s leading theatres – the Bolshoi, New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, the Kirov, Paris Opéra, Béjart’s Ballet of the 20th Century Company, Rome Teatro dell’Opera Ballet Company, La Scala. The third stage in my life – from 1991 up to the present day – is closely linked to the Saisons Russes.’ It was in celebration of the legendary impresario Sergei Diaghilev and his Saisons Russes (Russian Seasons) in the early part of the twentieth century that brought ‘People’s Artist of Russia’ Andris Liepa, a world famous ballet star and son of the dancer and choreographer, Maris Liepa, to London to present a series of revivals/re-stagings of the original versions of several of the ballets Diaghilev commissioned. Together with his sister, Ilze, in 1997 they founded the Maris Liepa Foundation in honour of their father. In his own right the charismatic and very-engaging Andris Liepa is gaining renown as a talented producer and choreographer and I talked to him shortly before these London performance began.

I began by asking what the reason behind the ‘Diaghilev Festival’ is.

I consider it a tribute to Diaghilev and it is modern version of what he has done. It still exists more than a hundred years after his first ballet season started in 1909. We celebrated the centenary two years ago in Paris’s Théâtre des Champs-Élysées and it was very successful, but one of the original ideas was to bring those ballets back toRussia. The idea was to revive and bring back to Russia what belongs to Russia. We do a tour of 10 cities around Russia and have already been doing this for four years; we have a lot of big companies supporting us like the Russian railways who help us to deliver 85 dancers and two trucks with all the sets. We are working on major stages in big cities of more than a million people – and smaller cities as well if they have a proper theatre we could fill. If they do not have a proper stage big enough for the sets we put on a Diaghilev gala and by just changing the back drops we give them excerpts from the best ballets, such as Schéhérazade, The Firebird, Le Pavillion d’Armide, and perform L’Apres-midi d’un Faune which is a small ballet that does not need much space and big sets. So basically that’s what we’re doing.

It is wonderful that you are now here in London. Was it always important for you to come here with these ballets?

My idea was to come to London because we appreciate London has saved the best that we now have – Petrushka, The Firebird, Schéhérazade, Les Sylphides, Le Spectre de la Rose – ballets which get another life because they are being staged here by English National Ballet, at Covent Garden and Sadler’s Wells Ballet. They have all performed those ballets and I really think Russia needs to see what belongs to Russia – with Russian dancers, with Russian music, with Russian set designers – and that’s what I wanted to bring back. It is a hundred years later and at the same time these ballets are is still very successful and people are still coming to see them.

I understand they did a very beautiful exhibition about Diaghilev in the Victorian and Albert Museum recently and I really thought it would be wonderful to come right afterwards. People showed a great interest in going go and see the pictures, the little drawings, sets and models for The Blue God but I wanted them to come and see it on stage and see how those costumes will move. It is not the original choreography but Wayne Eagling did a marvellous job in getting the sense of how it might be – it’s a remake with a modern mentality, with the modern type of seeing what a dancer could do on stage and with the original type of care for details and things what I noticed from my father when he restored Spectre de la Rose. He was the first in the Soviet Union (as it was then) to restore this unique ballet on the stage of the Bolshoi and performed it himself, and then he gave this ballet to me and my sister: I already have given this ballet to others like Nikolai Tsiskaridze and now they can dance this ballet too.

What I am interested is to bring to London something what belongs to London … here in one of the Coliseum rooms they have an original poster from 1925 when Diaghilev performed in this theatre and the Savoy Hotel supported us after they realised Diaghilev and his dancers stayed at the Savoy. They even have a little display with a card signed by Diaghilev. In Europe we call our project ‘The Russian Seasons of the 21st-century’ and I decided to call it in London something that really connected it to the exhibition about Diaghilev – hence ‘Diaghilev Festival’.

How difficult is it to revive these famous ballets?

Most we can restore through notations as most of the ballets were created by Michel Fokine, Nijinsky himself and Bronislava Nijinska. These were people who were very precise in noting things down and there is a lot of material connected to that time. In 1957 Vitaly Fokine sent two big boxes with the original notations by Michel Folkine to Leningrad but until 1992 and perestroika started it was closed and nobody could see it. I was the first and it is now kept in the Lunachersky library in St Petersburg. The ballets I restored I gave as a gift to the Mariinsky theatre and The Firebird and Schéhérazade were premièred there in 1993 and are still on; every year they are performing them 25 or 30 times and they are classics of Russian history. What I would like to do is to continue the do these restorations: we now have 10 ballets involving more than 1000 costumes and sets and everything else and we keep them in our two bases in Moscow and Riga – Riga Opera theatre does a lot of things for me. I’m also delivering them to European companies and have staged Schéhérazade in Rome, Madrid, Marseilles, Florence and Dresden. It is very successful as the music is so amazing.

I find there are lots of things saved in museums such as the backdrops from Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Golden Cockerel and that is the next thing what I want to revive. Next year for Paris we are going to do the restoration of Cléopâtre designed by Leon Bakst and I really want to restore The Golden Cockerel, the opera and ballet, as this is one of the most beautiful productions. Again nothing exists but there is film of ten minutes of the original choreography in the Metropolitan Library. Fokine died in 1942 but in 1936 he had staged this ballet and a coloured film – 8 or 10 minutes I believe – exists. I will go there with my colleague, the choreographer I am working with, and we will do the research and on this basis we could build it up. It is like a puzzle when you have one piece you can really imagine how things go, for instance we had the sets for The Blue God and the sets gave the real feeling how it should all look.

I must mention this year we are bringing the St Petersburg State Academic Symphony orchestra and the conductor is Alexander Titov; in 1993 he was the conductor who conducted in the Mariinsky theatre and now he has his own orchestra and he brings it over here. When we came first time with the original sets by Alexander Golovin for The Firebird it was a sensation because here you have seen the second version by Natalia Goncharova; the original version was done for Paris Opéra in 1910. Diaghilev was a great entrepreneur but he decided that the heavy sets would not be suitable for his travelling company and he destroyed them. Until I did it in 1993 nobody had really properly restored it and we found a beautiful sketch in a gallery by Alexander Golovin, and in the Lunachersky library we found the last scene – the wedding scene – with the beautiful golden domes.

The DVD Return of the Firebird with your recreations of PetrushkaThe Firebird and Schéhérazade, has recently been available again from Universal and I think this must be important to you to show the work you are doing.

The Universal company bought the rights for the movie and it is wonderful because the head of the department at the Decca – twhich is based in London and under the umbrella of Universal – sent me a little email after he looked at the material and it was the best compliment I’ve ever had. He wrote: ‘Thank you very much … it is a timeless product’. People who want to really get a sense of what ‘The Russian Seasons’ were can just go to this DVD and see how the sets were, how the dancers danced and I really do believe that modern dancers are very much on the same level now as those we had at the beginning of the twentieth century: like Nikolai Tsiskaridze who is the first who wears the crown from The Blue God; not even Nureyev had the chance to do it, nor Baryshnikov, and now our generation has these kind of discoveries.

There is only a very limited amount of modern choreographers who are on a level of somebody like Kenneth MacMillan, Grigorovich or Béjart, and we are losing these types of people now. There are, of course, a lot of talented people who can do nice choreographies but what I do believe is that some of the young generation who love the arts could come in this audience and become the next directors for this theatre or Covent Garden. There may be somebody who could be a future musician or set designer; they cannot see how beautiful it all is until they get to the theatre and see the success of this project. If you open a book about it from the historical libraries and see the pictures you think ‘oh it was wonderful’ but it is just a museum exhibit. What I’m saying is that it is does not belong in a museum but it is a living performance. After a hundred years it still exists; the choreography of The Firebird is still the same, the sets are the same, the music is still the same, the dancing is the same; we should be in the Guinness Book of Records as for a hundred years it has never stopped.

L’Après-midi d’un Faune shows how far ahead they were a hundred years ago because it looks modern even now and if you see The Rite of Spring you say ‘wow,  it’s amazing!’ and can’t even find the words to describe it. Anyone who sees the last of our three programmes will see Boléro, and this is the pearl of all our programmes. The original sets by Alexander Benois and Nijinska’s choreography still exist and my sister Ilze is doing the role first performed by Ida Rubinstein. I am sure Ilze is on the same level as Ida and even better because she knows how to move; Ida was a beautiful dancer but was not a ballerina. Ilze is a beautiful dramatic actress and incredible actress – as Ida was – and with every movement we even go further than they original did.
I reminded Andris how Ravel’s music is mostly known to British audiences though its ice dance connotation and said how good it will be to see again why it was originally composed.

Ida Rubinstein was the person who commissioned this music from Ravel and again I think if you come and see the original production that was done in 1928 at the Paris Opéra – and had an incredible success there – again it still exists now more than 80 years later; you just come and be fascinated. Everybody remembers the Béjart production – and he did a beautiful modern version – but this is the original.

You have outlined some of your future plans but is there anything else we can look forward to?

There are so many things that could be restored from the opera and ballets. I believe in the success of this project and we have signed a contract with Théâtre des Champs-Élysées for five years and we have already been there three years. We restored the Polovtsian Dances with the Nikolai Roerich set designs and the Michel Fokine choreography, Les Sylphides with the original sets by Alexander Benois. Next year we are going to do Cléopâtre as I said; then we are going to do The Golden Cockerel and I also want to restore Narcisse, so these are our plans. Next year I don’t think we can come to London because of the Olympics but we have plans to return in 2013. Next year we are planning to go to the United States as Diaghilev was very successful in the States: in 1916 and 1917 he toured there and when I looked at his schedule it was more than 25 cities. He went everywhere, Boston, Cincinnati, Washington, almost every city we’re touring now: I don’t know how he did it in the beginning of the twentieth century when it took two months to go by boat to America. Now you just pick up the phone and fax the contract and you sign the contract; in those days you had to go over the sea and sign a contract with every single theatre in the States and it was all very different.

My dream for the European project we call ‘The Russian Seasons of the 21st-century’ is that we have the opportunity to go a little further because now we are restoring and bringing something that belongs to Diaghilev but I believe that as we become more successful we can come with new things and deliver two programmes; the old ballets and something totally new from a new composer, new designer and young dancer. We have in our repertory a ballet created on sets and costumes by Oskar Schlemmer, it was from the same time as Diaghilev but totally modern and not in his repertoire. Perhaps we could bring something like that next time in 2013 and it would be fascinating to see it. In Russia it was extremely successful when I put it up on the stage with the oldest type of mechanical-style costumes. I called it ‘The Museum of Oskar Schlemmer’ and got the idea from seeing the costumes; I imagined it like a museum and when everybody leaves at night these costumes start to move by themselves and so it was just like that.

To conclude I asked his thoughts on how ballet is doing in the Russia of today.

I believe it is still in good shape and although lots of people are leaving the country it is like a plant – if you have the roots you can still grow and grow them. Just as some sports people – lots of people – have left, we have new ones coming up and sometimes it gives you new blood. You will see dancers in our ballets who are very young and very talented and why shouldn’t they get the chance? They grow through this sort of tour because this repertoire was created for real artists and they become real artists doing this repertoire: it is good both for technique and artistic development.

© Jim Pritchard

To book for the remaining performances of the ‘Diaghilev Festival’ please go to the website