London Diaghilev Festival (2) Le Pavillion d’Armide, L’Après-midi d’un Faune and Boléro

Diaghilev Festival  (2) Le Pavillion d’Armide, L’Après-midi d’un Faune and Boléro, with music by Tcherepnin, Debussy and Ravel: Guest soloists and dancers of the Kremlin Ballet Company, St Petersburg State Academic Symphony Orchestra. Conductor: Alexander Titov. London Coliseum, London, 16.4.2011. (JPr)

Picture © Kremlin Ballet Company

With their final programme – and three more exhumed corpses from Serge Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes – the Maris Liepa Charitable Foundation and Kremlin Ballet Company completed their week’s residency at the London Coliseum – and I, for one, cannot wait for their return in 2013. If to believe an early review – of their first programme that I did not see – it was all then a little chaotic, under-rehearsed and some dancers seemed ill-prepared, perhaps that was so: things had obvious improved by the time I first saw them  and at his evening everyone was on top-form and much fun was had by all


Andris Liepa, son of the late Maris Liepa, reappeared to introduce once again his project and the ballets we were to see. This time he was much briefer in his comments and, in hindsight, certainly could have told the audience more about the first one of these, Le Pavillion d’Armide. This was perhaps the first great success for the designer, Alexander Benois, and choreographer, Michel Fokine when first staged in 1907. Together with Nicolai Tcherepnin’s fairytale waltzing music with its clear Russian accent, they are supposed to have charmed their first audiences by a romantic portrayal of eighteenth-century France, again, as see through Russian eyes. The tale is apparently based on the story of Omphale by the French romantic Théophile Gautier. Benois invented the character of the Marquis who sells his soul to the devil and turns into Hydrao, a fairytale king; add a mysterious abandoned castle, a magician, an aristocrat who believes he is love with Armide (one of the figures from a tapestry that comes to life) and put a jester, some odalisques, little negroes (yes indeed!), and some ‘bouffons’ into the mix and that’s about it.


Sadly, though a few details of the original still exist this was very much a reinvention by Jurijus Smoriginas with restored sets and costumes by Anna Nezhy. Although it is much better than Smoriginas’s Thamar, I did lose the plot somewhat and there could have been a greater sense of narrative but it was a delightfully frothy entertainment and because of that, I guess, it was very much in keeping with the original. The setting was clearly a palace garden from the time of Louis XVI and there were two continuous water features – the last time I had seen nearly as much water on stage was when I saw Liberace and his ‘Dancing Waters’ at the London Palladium more years ago than I can bear to remember. The large tapestry important to the story is lowered and later raised again and that completes the picture of the setting for this work. The Magician reminded me of the late Ali Bongo and – believe it if you will – there were two ‘negroes’ with make up last seen with the ‘Black and White Minstrels’! Fortunately this dance company will be back in Russia before the PC-compliance brigade get to hear about this.


The three central performances made famous by, amongst other, Pavlova, Nijinsky and Fokine himself, and were superbly realised by Alexandra Timofeyeva (Armide), Mikhail Martynuk (Golden Slave) and Andrei Mercuriev (Armide’s lover, Rinaldo). Smoriginas conjures up a wistful pas de trois for these main characters and a spirited pas de deux for Armide and her lover. There is some scarf business that reminds one of La Bayadère and some interplay with the Magician (Yuri Belousov) – especially through Timofeyeva’s come-hither eyes and flashing smile that is pure Odile (from Act II Swan Lake). Kirill Yermolenko impressed as The Jester and the high-jinks of the ‘bouffons’, the Odalisques and yes even the ‘negroes’ were performed with great enthusiasm and commitment by all concerned. In the manner of many dancers with their schooling the entire company seem to be able to hide the artifice for the sake of their art and make standing en pointe, for instance, seem something entirely natural.


Two shorter ballets concluded this programme and these were no less exhilarating. Choreographed to Claude Debussy’s incandescent L’Après-midi d’un Faune, and to Leon Bakst’s suitably impressionistic designs, Nijinsky created the role of the Faun for himself. The short ballet involves the young faun flirting with several nymphs, it ends with a sexual act from the faun involving the nymph’s scarf that is left behind and this – as well as the modern (for its time) choreography – caused a great scandal when it was first seen in 1912. Nijinsky explained his achievement by saying ‘I am the Faun’; years later Nureyev’s Faun was just Nureyev’s Faun – because his personality was bigger than the role. Here Nikolai Tsiskaridze’s controlled and internalised performance was redolent of other-worldly animalistic potency and passion and he has every right to be considered ‘the Faun’.


Finally the ballet that inspired Maurice Ravel’s 1928 Boléro – now over-familiar as ice dance music – was seen for the first time in London. It was created by the first woman choreographer – and Nijinsky’s sister – Bronislava Nijinska. Fortunately not only the original sketches and photographs of the ballet remain but there are Nijinska’s notes to help in the restaging of this ballet. Alexander Benois’s set takes us to a cheap Barcelona tavern where a woman is dancing on a large table surrounded by men lusting after her. Peopled with characters straight out of the Carmen stock-company, all concerned flamenco themselves up into a frenzy with their hand-clapping, foot-stamping, guitar-strumming and knife-wielding. There was a mesmerising central performance as The Dancer from Ilze Liepa who towards the end assumes the identity of the bull from a corrida before being held aloft at what is almost an orgasmic climax. The only disappointment was from conductor, Alexander Titov, and his orchestra; certain soloists and sections of the orchestra were more exposed than ever before by Ravel’s initially languorous music before it whips up a head of steam and revealed for the first time, perhaps, a lack of preparation. However I do not want to make a big issue of this as they otherwise performed very creditably.


Jim Pritchard