Ballets, really successful ones, mutate due to audiences’ expectations of madder music, stronger wine. They can become parodies of themselves, and even Diaghilev wanted Matisse to redecorate Fokine’s Scheherazade, believing that the colours would have to be brighter for a 1920s audience, since nothing could recapture the excitement of the first blaze of Bakst’s designs a decade before, nor Ida Rubinstein’s glamour as Zobeide, and Nijinsky’s exoticism as the Golden Slave.
All of which serves to introduce the Homage to Fokine programme that the Mariinsky Ballet showed us on Friday night. About Chopiniana (which is Les Sylphides under its original title) I have not a whisper of complaint. St Petersburg’s traditions have guarded this romantic reverie since its creation there in 1908, and the cast illuminates every moment. “Reaching for the moon”, as Fokine told Alicia Markova, they dance with the softest accents, the lightest gusts of feeling as of step.
Yana Selina floated exquisitely in the arms of Alexander Parish (lately of the Royal Ballet and now an elegant Mariinsky danseur). Maria Shirinkina ravishingly coasted on the air in the Mazurka, and Xenia Ostreikovskaya danced the Prelude on an ecstatic phrase. Perfection.
About the succeeding Firebird and Scheherazade, my opening sentence is comment enough. Both were made by Fokine for the Ballets Russes in those first dazzling seasons. Their success, their allure, and a whiff of Arabian Nights naughtiness guaranteed them tremendous box-office appeal. They survived after Diaghilev as spectres of their former selves, and today, frankly, they are almost unrecognisable. Their performance style is long lost. I saw late Diaghilev artists and immediately post-Diaghilev Ballets Russes performers trying to knock artistic sense into them, without denting their unlikeliness. What the Mariinsky troupe offers is also unlikely, but redeemed (up to a point) by the grand gifts of their casts and by tremendous performance from the Mariinsky orchestra under Boris Gruzin.
I was bowled over by the huge shapes carved in the air by Ekaterina Kondaurova as the Firebird (“I want the beat of mighty wings”, said Fokine – and there they were), and intrigued by Igor Zelensky’s wholly modern sexual charge as the Golden Slave. But these elaborate revivals are van Meegeren rather than Vermeer, and nothing can disguise their gaudy improbability.