Canned Music, Substitutions but Spectacle a-plenty from Kremlin Ballet

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Weber, Stravinsky and Rimsky-Korsakov Russian Seasons of the XXI Century – Le Spectre de la Rose, The Firebird, and Schéhérazadewith recorded music by : Guest soloists and dancers of the Kremlin Ballet Company, London Coliseum, London, 16.7.2013. (JPr)

 Makhalina and Parish in Scheherazade c Kremlin Ballet.
Makhalina and Parish in Scheherazade (c) Kremlin Ballet.

Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes are the stuff of legend and Andris Liepa and his Russian Seasons project’s aim is to bring to modern audiences some of the ‘thrill’ that the audiences at the first performances must have experienced. The London Coliseum felt many other emotions for a variety of reason – and thrills were few and far between.

In front of a stunningly gaudy Ballet Russes front cloth, Liepa, disarmingly charming and in occasionally inappropriate English, appeared to introduce the ballets from the stage and give the background to his tribute to Diaghilev (most of this is to be found in my 2011 interview with him. He often mixes new choreography – but inspired by existing music and set and costume designs – against the full recreation of existing steps and staging. And this was the plan for this, the first of three planned programmes in a short return season. We were due to see the London première of Cléopâtre – Ida Rubinstein, choreographed by Patrick de Bana, but during the first – of what turned out to be a number of apologies – Liepa told us how the dancer we were due to see, Ilze Liepa (Andris’s sister), had not recovered from a knee injury and because it seems no one else could dance it, Schéhérazade would be the replacement in what was now an all-Michel Fokine evening and a ‘Diaghilev Festival’.

Liepa was back after Le Spectre de la Rose to apologise for problems with the lighting causing a prolonged delay and then back once more to let us know that there would be an extra interval so that the scenery of the realm of Koschei the Deathless in The Firebird could be seen appropriately and not be an ‘insult’. Eventually the running time of this otherwise short programme was extended by over 50 minutes! The best Andris Liepa could offer was it was cooler in the London Coliseum than if we were in the heatwave outside.

What we did not hear was any explanation why we had recorded music instead of a live orchestra as on their previous visit and why we could not be given more than a one side of A4 as a cast/information sheet. This was important as I am sure many in the audience did not realise that Xander Parish, is British and a graduate of the Royal Ballet School and that his colleague at the Mariinsky, Yulia Makhalina, is a legendary ballerina in her own right and even though in her mid-forties looked – and danced – like someone half her age. This makes a nonsense of the Royal Ballet’s recent history of sidelining and forcing out their dancers as soon as they hit the ‘Big 4-0’ … to English National Ballet’s benefit it now seems!

What we saw were pure-and-simply historical ballet exhumations and should be appreciated as such. The star guests are shoehorned into Liepa’s own Kremlin Ballet who are an enthusiastic, energetic and seemingly cheerful group of dancers, even if one or two of the men were surprisingly rotund.

The evening opened with the fragrant two-hander that is La Spectre de la Rose, Makhalina seemed appropriately ‘in another world’ as the Young Girl, and Xander Parish’s youth, sharply-focussed dancing and long, languid arms did well in the title role made famous by Nijinsky and more recently, Nureyev. Parish has a stylish and refined technique and his Mariinsky experience seems to be serving him well; he also has a strong stage presence that is unusual for a Brit but this particularly allowed this fragile period-piece to bloom once more, however fleetingly.

The Firebird attempts to recreate the original 1910 designs by fin-de-siècle Russian master Alexander Golovin compared to those we are more familiar with from Natalia Goncharova. The captive princesses skip down and flee back up a ramp behind ogre Koschei’s golden gates and for the final scene the warriors are shown released from their stone imprisonment against the castle wall. Then, along with the maidens, they honour the Prince and Princess as a backcloth rises to show an elaborate palace. Karsavina originally danced the main role costumed in an elaborate creation by Bakst but Alexandra Timofeeva wore the familiar flaming tutu. With flashing eyes she was good without being particularly otherworldly. The Bolshoi’s Mikhail Lobukin was a cartoonish, earthbound, though earnest Prince Ivan. Natalia Balakhnicheva was an enchanting princess, though it was a pity the other princesses spent so much time catching up with their golden apples they were throwing across the stage – and failing to catch.

During Stravinsky’s infernal dance it was difficulty to take the childlike fairytale costumes for Koschei’s (a suitably demonic Igor Pivorovich) minions/monsters seriously as a mix of smurfs and creatures with pre-Jean Paul Gaultier cones on their chests … but perhaps we are not meant to. There was indeed quite a lot of skipping during this performance that may have been less due to under-rehearsal than having to keep up with a frantic – and often much too raucous – soundtrack that gave them no breathing space.

Schéhérazade was another 1910 creation by Fokine for Nijinsky who partnered Ida Rubenstein and it has been a repertory staple ever since. It is easy to believe the stir created by the brilliant colours of Bakst’s pearl and gem-encrusted costumes and the oriental ‘flavour’ of the choreography. After an interminable musical introduction the curtain rose on Anna Nezhnaya and Anatoly Nezhny’s colourful and opulently restored sets – they were also responsible for The Firebird. The lithe, supple Yulia Makhalina, who still has the extravagant ‘ear-whacking’ leg extension of her Russian-schooled counterparts, totally belied her age as Zobeide. Xander Parish (Mariinsky’s gain, Royal Ballet’s loss) rose to the challenge to make the forever leaping and spinning Golden Slave a real character. There seemed a genuine passion to his balletic couplings with Zobeide and this seemed reciprocated. The whole Kremlin company danced it enthusiastically and with their familiar boundless energy. There was a good trio of Odalisques (Yuliya Voronina, Valeriya Pobedinskaya and Alia Khasenova) and the Chief Eunich (Roman Volodchenkov) wobbled in a fat-suit about the stage and was very effeminate – and totally non-PC. Once again the recorded music made things look a little more hectic than necessary.

The was much that was wrong with this evening and that cannot be glossed over but Andris Liepa’s Russian Seasons of the XXI Century is a worthy Diaghilev tribute act and there are times when it is necessary to give your critical faculties a rest and just sit back and enjoy the spectacle. But if it does come back, please no more CDs and keep ballet music, where possible, live!

Jim Pritchard

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