Dancers from Kazakhstan impress at the London Coliseum in Chopiniana and Scheherazade

19/11/2019

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Abay Kazakh State Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre – Chopiniana and Scheherazade: London Coliseum, 17.11.2019. (JO’D)

Abay Kazakh State Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre’s Scheherazade

Chopiniana

Choreography – Mikhail Fokine, Gulzhan Tutkibaeva
Music – Frédéric Chopin
Performed by Leading Soloists and Corps de Ballet of Abay Kazakh State Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre

Scheherazade

Choreography – Mikhail Fokine, Tony Candeloro
Music – Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov
Performed by Leading Soloists and Corps de Ballet of Abay Kazakh State Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre

After Astana Ballet’s recent performances at the Royal Opera House’s Linbury Theatre (review click here), the Republic of Kazakhstan continued its ‘cultural offensive’ (as the country’s ambassador to the UK put it during an opening address) with a visit by the Abay Kazakh State Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre to the London Coliseum. Two one-act ballets by Mikhail Fokine made up the programme of the company’s UK debut: Chopiniana and Scheherazade.

The music was recorded, and a little distorted by the Coliseum’s sound system. This hardly mattered. Very soon after the break into movement from the tableau with which Chopiniana (otherwise familiar as Les Sylphides) begins, one’s attention was all for the dancers. They show, as a company, in this ballet and the next, a remarkably soft and expressive port de bras.

First performed in 1907, Chopiniana looks back to the Romantic era of the 1830s. As writer Lynn Garafola explains in ‘Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes’, it was Fokine’s reaction to the increasing ‘virtuosity, acrobatism, and vulgar display’ of late-nineteenth century ballet in St. Petersburg.

In choreography ‘revived’ by Gulzhan Tutkibaeva, Rakhim Dairov is a virile Young Man. Zhanel Tukeeva dances a lively Mazurka. Dinara Yessentayeva, in the Seventh Waltz and Prelude, really seems to be listening to the music. But the ballet belongs to the soundless, sylph-like female dancers of the corps. It was when their arms, held collectively en couronne, suddenly stopped waving (in perfect time to the music) that the London Coliseum audience caught its breath.

‘Today,’ wrote Lynn Garafola in 1998, ‘Schéhérazade seems the height of ballet camp.’ She goes on to explain the power and subversiveness of this Orientalist fantasy for audiences in Paris in 1910 (and also for subsequent audiences). As performed by the Abay Kazakh State Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre, with additional choreography by Toni Candeloro, Scheherazade is powerful still.

In slippers and harem pants (Leon Bakst’s original designs ‘restored’ by Toni Candeloro and Daniele Ament), Malika Elchibayeva’s Zobeide and Azamat Askarov’s Golden Slave are equally decorative, equally eroticised. She arches her body in ecstasy. He, the munificent lover in a role originally danced by Vaslav Nijinsky, moves around her with sinuous shoulders, sinuous hips, his midriff adorned with pearls. Other concubines in the seraglio have paired up with other slaves while the handsome Sultan (Nelson Peña) goes hunting. After an extended display of choreographed sensuality to Rimsky-Korsakov’s evocative music, the slaughter that ensues on the Sultan’s return is as ‘shockingly brutal’ as it was ninety years ago.

While Chopiniana retains some of the diagonals and straight lines of the Petipa ballets that preceded it, the formations in Scheherazade are circular. The corps de ballet becomes what the critic Valerian Svetlov (cited by Garafola) describes as ‘a sort of collective artist, imbued with the idea of the production, living in it and collaborating’. Scheherazade owes its effect to the expressiveness of the leading soloists. But from wary backstage onlooker at the start to palace guard awaiting orders at the end, all the dancers of the Abay Kazakh State Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre appear fully committed to the drama.

John O’Dwyer

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