Saisons Russes, Coliseum, London – review

Before the performance of each of the ballets in the Saisons Russes programme on Friday night, Andris Liepa, mastermind behind this as of previous visits, came before the front curtain to tell us about each production, and about the Moscow State Music Theatre for Young Audiences whose dance (and opera) troupes perform masterworks of the early Diaghilev era. The only thing missing was the assurance that the dishes would be spotlessly clean and all the stains in the carpet gone. For, despite the noble restorative intentions behind this enterprise, the stagings – Petrushka, Les Sylphides, The Polovtsian Dances from Prince Igor – are well-intentioned but unlikely simulacra of what they purport to be.

The repertoire that Diaghilev gave to the world for two miraculous decades from 1909 to 1929, was never seen in Russia. (A proposed season was cancelled when a St Petersburg theatre burned down.) A couple of early works originated in that city; for the rest the ethos, the style, the collaborations that gave them birth and art-changing life, were unknown, despite the vital Russian-ness of their nature. Western audiences loved, fed off these ballets, reproduced them (and still do) with various signs of authenticity and respect, and their continuing life – albeit our ballet troupes traduce them – is tribute to their power even today.

Artists who knew them from their original Ballets Russes productions, who guarded them and passed them on – notably in the UK, where Diaghilev’s long-time stage-manager Serge Grigoriev gave authentic versions to the Royal Ballet – and such Diaghilev luminaries as Dolin, Markova, Danilova, Massine, Sokolova and Karsavina danced, coached or staged them with a grand sense of their significance. I am fortunate to have seen these great figures, and to have known the continuing theatrical power of the masterpieces in which they danced.

All of which must explain my despair at what I found the improbability of these Saisons Russes presentations. The Petrushka was unfamiliar in step and decoration. The Polovtsian Dances benefited from vivid choral singing and boisterous caperings more conducive to giggles than fear of an invading horde. Les Sylphides seemed a dutiful revenant. The casts eager. Diaghilev betrayed. The audience ecstatic.

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