Liepa’s Triple Bill Shows Russian Ballet at its Best

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Stravinsky, Chopin, Borodin, Petrushka, Chopiniana and Polovtsian Dances:Dancers, Soloist, Chorus and Orchestra of the Moscow State Music Theatre for Young Audience (named after Natalia Sats) / Alevtina Ioffe. (conductor), Diaghilev Festival, London Coliseum, London, 11.7.2014. (JPr)

Andris Liepa’s revival of Michel Folkine’s Chopiniana (c) Russian Seasons of the XXI Century

Principal Dancers

Petrushka: Pavel Okunev
Ballerina: Renata Burtseva
Moor: Dmitry Kruglov
Magician: Maxim Podshivalenko

Young Man: Georgy Smilevski
Seventh Waltz: Alexandra Timofeyeva, Georgy Smilevski
Prelude: Anna Markova
Mazurka: Alexandra Timofeyeva
Eleventh Waltz: Anastasia Afanasyeva
Two Sylphides: Julia Belyakova, Varvara Prokhorenko

Polovtsian Dances
Polovtsian: Pavel Okunev
Polovtsian woman (ballet): Rimma Sabirulliva
Polovtsian woman (opera): Elena Chesnokova
Captive Woman: Natalia Savelieva


Choreography: Michel Fokine
Director: Andris Liepa

Petrushka: sets and costumes: Alexandre Benois (recreated by Anatoly Nezhnyi and Anna Nezhnaya
Chopiniana: sets and costumes: Alexandre Benois (recreated by Anna Nezhnaya)
Polovtsian Dances:sets and costumes: Nicholas Roerich (recreated by Anna Nezhnaya)

History tells us you had to be here. Anyone who was anyone – and had enough money – had to be sitting in the ornate splendour of Paris’s Théâtre du Chatelet on May 19, 1909 for the opening night of Serge Diaghilev’s Les Ballets Russes. The visionary impresario had presented concerts of Russian music in France’s capital in 1907, the following year audiences there were thrilled to hear the great Russian bass Fyodor Chaliapin in Modest Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov at the Paris Opera – a further step in Diaghilev’s mission to acquaint Western Europe with Russian culture. In 1909 he had brought ballet and the theatre was packed. It was a significant ‘red carpet’ event in less media-savvy times and composers, artists, performers and members of the French aristocracy swelled the crowd. The ‘beautiful people’ had been cleverly seated by Diaghilev in the front row of the dress circle – Isadora Duncan amongst them – to get them maximum attention. In the newspapers of the day there had been articles about a new sort of ballet, but nothing could entirely  prepare the audience for what they were about to see in that first legendary season of the Ballets Russes that included Chopiniana (or Les Sylphides) and Polovtsian Dances.

Given the mixed fortunes of two previous visits to London by Andris Liepa’s ‘Russian Seasons of the XXI Century’ project and that he was now bringing something called the ‘Moscow State Music Theatre for Young Audience named after Natalia Sats’ – who would have thought that something of the sense of excitement experienced that 1909 Parisian night would have been palpable in London in July 2014 … but it was! I wonder if there will be better evenings of ballet in London this summer – or even possibly next season! It was just as good as their performance of the neglected Le Coq d’Or a few days before (review here) .

The success of their visit this year has been the spirited company – opera, ballet and orchestra – that has been brought to London. These enjoyable performances had excellent support from the Natalia Sats’s Moscow Music Theatre’s own musicians impeccably conducted by their chief conductor Alevtina Ioffe. (As if it was not clear from her first name, some reviewers have needed to point out she is a female conductor … though do not seem to need to write anything if it is a man!) There was excellent rapport with her performers throughout with energy, foreboding, reverie and vivid orchestral colours, as appropriate, for the Stravinsky, Chopin or Borodin. Why is music played live nearly always neglected by ballet critics … but they are only too ready to complain – like me – if it is recorded? Lastly, there was a frisson to what we saw that was only possible because the music was live.

Petrushka is the sublime 1911 collaboration between Fokine and Stravinsky and a work that Diaghilev himself presented at the London Coliseum in 1926. This is an ironic look at life in Russia at that time juxtaposing all the fun of a 1830s’ fair with hints of something much darker in the antics of the central triumvirate of puppets – Petrushka, Ballerina and Moor – for the Magician who presents them in a show. Andris Liepa described it as a slice of ‘real life’ as compared to the fantasy or fairy-tale world of most ballets of the time. I saw Rudolf Nureyev perform Petrushka several times and never expected any other dancer to match the pathos he brought to the role. Yet there is a neurotic angst to Petrushka’s infatuation for the ballerina (here the very precise and pertRenata Burtseva) that the somewhat broken and loose-limbed puppet of Pavel Okunev captured perfectly. His banging with his mittened hands on the walls of his cell was heart-breaking. There was a genuine feeling of sadness when he was cut down by the Moor’s sabre, followed by real surprise when the crowd parted to reveal just a toy and not a real person. This gave Petrushka’s subsequent resurrection quite an impact because we had begun to care so much. The ballet has to be seen against the background of Russian history of the time and – as Liepa said – although the Magician could torture Petrushka’s body, his soul remains free. The whole company danced with great spirit against the backdrop of Alexander Benois’ vibrant designs and in his equally colourful, elaborate costumes – with lots of whiskers for most of the men and one woman who looked like the 2014 Eurovision Song Contest winner Conchita Wurst! Perhaps in the twenty-first century the blinged-upped Moor (Dmitry Kruglov) should not look quite so much like a refugee from The Black and White Minstrel Show of infamous memory … but this is now and that was then!

Next was Chopiniana, the Fokine masterpiece that he called his ‘romantic reverie’. It is an abstract and lyrically romantic ballet, a suite of solos and ensemble numbers set to orchestrations of some piano music by Frederic Chopin. It is deceptively simple, yet sophisticated, with no complicated moves and no extravagant turns, leaps or multiple pirouettes, which were the choreographic staples of ballet performances of the time. The ballerinas with wings attached to them are in ankle-length white flowing dresses dancing in a sublime, almost ethereal manner. Chopiniana offers a showcase for a flawlessly articulated romantic ballet style. I looked for flaws in the performance but could not find any as the dancers displayed an exquisite technique and the idyllic nature and melancholic mood of the ballet was well expressed. There was often a perfect cohesive unanimity of movement and expression that did full justice to Fokine’s poetic vision. The elegant danseur noble, Georgy Smilevski, dancing with understated grace, portrayed the young poet infatuated with beauty of the eerie sylphs. Even if Chopiniana has no real story, it can be seen as the dream of a young man who finds himself in an enchanted moonlit forest glade inhabited by these ethereal winged spirits. Anastasia Afanasyeva brought delicacy to the Eleventh Waltz with her graceful jumps and arabesques, as well as, fluid and beautifully articulated hands. Anna Markova brought suitable mystery to the Prelude that requires exceptional balance and exquisite timing that she demonstrated splendidly, illuminating each step with great serenity and charm. Supported splendidly by the entire corps de ballet, Alexandra Timofeyeva and Georgy Smilevski revelled in the romantic longing that is the Seventh Waltz.

To end the evening we paid a visit to the Polovtsian camp from Borodin’s opera Prince Igor and ‘camp’ is a hugely appropriate description of these dances that Diaghilev presented during that first Saisons Russes in 1909. By no stretch of the imagination is this Fokine’s greatest choreography, but as performed here with such belief, commitment and exuberance there is no way that anyone watching would not have been swept up in the over-the-top ridiculousness of this colourful romp. Men (and some more bearded women) with bows stomp or jump with great fervour; veiled underdressed women are dragged in or move languidly; and there is no discernable plot. Of the lead roles (such as they are) the Wayne Sleep-like Pavel Okunev was back to throw off some spectacularly gymnastic leaps and seemed to relish in the role of the Polovtsian warrior leader, while Rimma Sabirulliva moved suitably slinkily as one of his women. The bonus was the singing of Elena Chesnokova and later the splendid chorus of the Moscow State Music Theatre for Young Audience named after Natalia Sats who gave full justice to Borodin’s exciting score and it helped make the final section – where everyone is leaping and moving at once in a colourful blur – something I will remember for a long time.

Like this Andris Liepa’s Russian Seasons of the XXI Century would be welcome back anytime … and I hope then audiences will pack the London Coliseum!

Jim Pritchard

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