London Diaghilev Festival (1) Thamar and Schéhérazade

Diaghilev Festival (1)  Thamar and Schéhérazade, with music by Balakirev and Rimsky-Korsakov: Guest soloists and dancers of the Kremlin Ballet Company, St Petersburg State Academic Symphony Orchestra. Conductor: Alexander Titov. London Coliseum, London, 14.4.2011. (JPr)

I suspect that this evening with not generate the best of reviews from the regular critics; indeed an elder-statesman of ballet criticism was often to be seen sniggering into his hand for long stretches of the evening. It is easy enough to dismiss this evening of exhumed and camply choreographed oriental erotica as poorly conceived, staged and danced because it does not meet one’s exacting standards – but that just covers up the underlying issue that – whatever the problems may be – there was a frisson from the dancing that developed throughout the evening that I am yet to experience from the British companies I have so far reported on. The dancers have energy, athleticism – and very importantly – charisma. Mostly their technique – regardless of whether the dancers are at their peak or past it – is on a scale only imagined by many dancers currently seen in the UK; most of the ballerinas have the extravagant leg extensions of a Guillem and the men have the ballon of a Nureyev in his prime.

In front of a stunningly gaudy Ballet Russes front cloth, Andris Liepa, whose project this is, engagingly – in occasionally inappropriate English – introduces the ballets from the stage and gives the background to his tribute to Diaghilev (most of this is to be found in my recent interview with him . He has attempted to put something new – but inspired by existing music and set and costume designs – against the full recreation of existing choreography and staging.

Thamar tells the story of a beautiful young woman who entices suitors by fluttering her scarf from a window; after a night of passion she has them killed and thrown in the river. This was the last of the Ballet Russes’s ‘orientalist’ ballets and Serge Lifar reminisced about the original in 1912 and wrote: ‘Thamar was colourless and not much noticed: Balakirev and Bakst were feted, but the ballet itself was of little interest.’ It is known that the ballet, in its original choreography, was revived in London in 1935 but since then that detail has been lost and it has been restaged by Jurijus Smoriginas in Bakst’s sets and costumes reconceived by Anna Nezhny. I gather the music is now inflated beyond the natural length of Balakirev’s symphonic poem but the orchestra under the insistent baton of Alexander Titov probably made it sound better than it actually is. Despite the composer’s apparent hatred of Wagner there are moments when he seems to have been channelled, as well as, much other Russian/Georgian orchestral colours masquerading, of course, as ‘sounds of the orient’.

As for the dancing, there did seem a lot of faffing around – and much hand waving – from all-concerned before matters settled down and concentrated on Thamar and the Traveller/Young Man. The image at the beginning and end of the ballet is quite striking and probably displays the spectres of Thamar’s dead lovers in a green laser lit depiction of rippling waters; there is a ruminative solo for Thamar and a moderately seductive duet for her and the Young Man but that’s about it. The Vizier chews the scenery and does everything but twirl his moustache and it is pure bathos to see the Young Man’s dead body carried upwards at the back of the stage to be despatched into the river. Throughout the evening, for me, the very bright – and often garish lighting – did not really create any sense of atmosphere from the sets or costumes.

I can only assume the pink leopard-spotted catsuit with pelmet skirt Irma Nioradze changes into as Thamar was not an original Bakst design and she looked at bit too much like a pole dancer; and in that loose-limbed, leggy fashion of leading Russian ballerinas has a similar gymnastic flexibility … or so I am told! Ilya Kuznetsov was her ardent, blond, suitor and Igor Pivorovich was the dastardly Vizier though neither is given anything really memorable to do. It was pleasing to note that the whole ensemble danced more efficiently than I was led to be would be the case.

Schéhérazade was created by Michel Fokine for Ida Rubinstein and Vaslav Nijinsky in 1910, and has been an enduring success from then on. It is easy to imagine how at that time audiences ‘ooh and aahed’ over the brilliant colours of Bakst’s pearl and gem-encrusted costumes and the oriental ‘flavour’ of Michel Fokine’s choreography. There was even a ripple of applause for Anna and Anatoly Nezhny’s colourful and opulently restored sets when the front cloth finally went up after an almost interminable musical introduction, however atmospherically performed by Titov and his orchestra.

Andris Liepa reminded us that Ida Rubenstein was more a mime artist than a ballerina and this is clear – even in this version that gives Zobeide slightly more to do than Rubenstein did – that her role never approaches the technical demands of the Golden Slave, conceived for Nijinsky, and who is forever either leaping or spinning. The whole company danced it convincingly and with boundless energy. There is a good trio of Odalisques, Aliya Khasenova, Valeria Pobedinskaya and Yulia Voronina. Roman Volodchenkov wobbled in a fat-suit about the stage and was a very effeminate – and totally non-PC – Chief Eunuch; truthfully I felt a little uneasy with this characterisation though accept it was of its time. Ilze Liepa, sister of Andris, was an eye-catching Zobeide, cool, aloof, and well aware of her affect on all men. Her movement is still extremely supple and sensual, and a credit to her Russian schooling.

Her colleague from the Bolshoi Ballet, Nikolai Tsiskaridze, was the Golden Slave. While I am led to believe he is no longer at his peak I did not see that in this performance. His grand jetés still have that floating quality where time seems to stand still and there was no lack of stamina for his fast pirouettes. There was never any real sign of physical effort exerted in a performance that was elegant and natural: I wish British companies had more than just the occasional male dancer with even half of Tsiskaridze’s bravura technique. It appeared that this Golden Slave was probably more in love with himself than Zobeide but it really didn’t matter – it was just the type of evening where, if you can, you give your critical faculties a real rest and just enjoy the spectacle.

Jim Pritchard