English National Ballet Pays Tribute to the Legendary Ballets Russes

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Stravinsky, Debussy, Firebird, Après-midi d’un faune, Faun(e), The Rite of Spring: Dancers and Orchestra of the English National Ballet,  Gavin Sutherland (conductor), London Coliseum, London, 22.3.12. (JPr)

Firebird Courtesy English National Ballet

Agony & Ecstasy, a BBC documentary series on English National Ballet might have seemed like a good idea at the time but laying bare its personalities, skeletons and financial problems seems to have sent the company on a downward spiral that it will take some strong leadership to rectify. Recently there has been the restricted scheduling of too many performances of Strictly Gershwin followed by more cuts in its funding precipitating the departure of managing director, Craig Hassall. Now artistic director, Wayne Eagling, has announced his shock resignation and with his imminent his departure the company’s future is even more uncertain.

That it remains a company with some aspiration to innovation is clear from the first of two programmes in homage to the legendary Ballets Russes and that willingness to accept a challenge – even though in this case it might in part be deemed a brave failure – is further evidence that ENB must survive.

When the legendary Russian impresario Serge Diaghilev brought his Ballets Russes to Paris in the early decades of the twentieth century, he melded the classical heritage to modern ideas, new designers, music and choreography. The result was often somewhat controversial but Diaghilev’s daring spirit towards ‘modernisation’ forms the basis behind ENB’s tribute to his work.

The Firebird was originally created in 1910 and was based on a traditional Russian fairy tale. However it seems the score has been cut and utilising David Bamber’s eclectic costume designs, the choreographic reinvention of the ballet by the young (and clearly talented) George Williamson is something of an eco-tale that has no strong narrative, though truth-be-told it hints very strongly of having been influenced by the film Avatar (in my opinion one of the most overrated so-called ‘masterpieces’ of recent years). The elaborate ENB printed programme is very thin on any details of what we would see, and I suspect most of the audience will have been left confused. Ksenia Ovsyanick’s lithe, athletic, tireless and alluring Firebird apparently ‘represents the world around us, nature in its purest form.’ She is costumed in a slinky, shimmering unitard with bold colours, much foiling and a feathered headdress. Humanity seems to take her to the brink of extinction by wanting bits of her: some of her plumage is removed and danced with, and after the Firebird seems to change colour mid-ballet – now including some prominent red as seen in the costume of the ‘traditional’ version – the golden feathers are stuck back on as if humanity comes to regret its treatment of her, and it all ends with the Firebird being held aloft in triumph.

Much of what this ballet’s ‘rethinking’ is trying to say is a little confusing and I wasn’t always certain what the named characters – Purity, Peacock, Army captain, Lead Celebrity and Three Muses (who looked like three girls on a night out in Basildon) were there for. However there is a fine solo for Junor Souza’s Army Captain, some graceful poses for those Three Muses and a mournful dance for Lauretta Summerscales’ Purity but elsewhere there was too much gloomily lit milling around (by Nicholas Holdridge), too many arabesques and gymnastic leg extensions especially for Ovsyanick’s Firebird, but there is much hope here for the future from Williamson himself, as well as, his version of Firebird. He just needs to improve the balance between allegory and fashion design.

In its centenary year I am sure juxtaposing Nijinsky’s famous two-dimensional L’Aprés-midi d’un faune with David Dawson’s 2009 Faun(e) may have seemed like a good idea. However, the former is not unique to the ENB and the other – that Dawson calls ‘a piece that reflects the period of its origin and the incredible creativity of the artists of the early twentieth-century’ – was danced by two guest artists. The Nijinsky version uses Debussy’s orchestral score whilst Faun(e) involves an adaptation for two pianos and was valiantly played by Kevin Darvas and Chris Swithinbank. With his background Dmitri Gruzdyev seems born to perform Faune at this stage of his career but he could never have seen his compatriot, Rudolf Nureyev, in the role as he would never have been quite so refined. There was insufficient predatory lust and it did not help that the tremulous evidence of the Faune’s fetishistic self-gratification over the discarded Chief Nymph’s veil should have been interrupted by the premature lowering of the curtain.

David Dawson’s Faun(e) does succeed in creating the homoerotic atmosphere of an older man’s (Raphaël Coumes-Marquet) burgeoning relationship with a younger one (Jan Casier). But there is nothing explicit about this paean to the naked male torso, human desire, the innocence of youth and eroticism; and the two dancers work together and against each other with compelling grace and much fluid power. However I did think this intimate work, set again the background of a bare rehearsal stage, looked a little lost in the large performing space at the London Coliseum.

Finally there was the celebration of another anniversary – Kenneth MacMillan’s original choreography for The Rite of Spring is now 50 years old. Apparently it was originally inspired – like the original The Firebird – by the Ballet Russes’ continuous fascination with Russia’s mythic past. Stravinsky and Nijinsky’s scenario for their ultimately doomed version has a prehistoric people from the forests of Northern Russia sacrifice a virgin to cosmic forces that alone can make the spring come and guarantee the survival of the tribe. MacMillan retained this story and his designer, Sydney Nolan, gave it a typical colourful aboriginal setting and Monica Mason – now retiring director of the Royal Ballet – had one of her first successes as The Chosen One.

Here MacMillan’s relentless and frenzied choreography is presented in new costumes by Kinder Aggugini; these are dark – often black – and embroider leotards that with the short curled wigs gave a tribal, if androgynous, appearance (similar to that seen in modern Sci-fi films) to all involved. Was it just me but as they often stomped, bent-kneed, arms open wide and hands spread, wasn’t it just the Māori Haka they were imitating? The ensemble of ENB dancers performed with commendable stamina and their unison throughout the ritual dances was almost impeccable. As The Chosen One who is picked by the elders to dance herself to death and be the sacrifice, the petite Erina Takahashi performed passionately and was a convincing martyr making for the very affecting denouement as The Chosen One’s lifeless body is held in veneration above the heads of the tribal members.

Finally, may I extend my praise for this evening to Gavin Sutherland’s sterling conducting of the company’s orchestra throughout the evening but especially in the two demanding Stravinsky scores and this perfectly justified English National Ballet’s ‘mission statement’ that the musicianship and musicality of both dancers and orchestra are allowed to shine in every performance.’

Jim Pritchard

English National Ballet continues at the London Coliseum until 1st April and for details of all their forthcoming performances visit www.ballet.org.uk.