Glimmers of a golden age

Ballets Russes
Sadler’s Wells, London

And what can we still make of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, whose centenary we celebrate this year? There were the dance-works that used the best of contemporary music and design, discovered new choreography and brought the rebirth of ballet. There were the designers, from Bakst and Benois to Picasso, the scores from Ravel, Debussy, de Falla and, above all, Stravinsky. There are the surviving stagings, which, for the most part, are unlikely or, in “reconstructions”, downright insolent. (The Royal Ballet offers authenticity, in revivals made by creators and first interpreters.) The Ballets Russes today is emblem of a golden age that ballet companies seek to evoke without understanding the force, the range of Diaghilev’s genius.

In this centenary year, with commemorations on hand, the whiff of formaldehyde is never absent: a recent gala proposed travesties of Diaghilev productions, without décor and without sense. Now English National Ballet is installed in Rosebery Avenue with gems from the Ballets Russes and, imaginatively, with newer work that uses the example of Diaghilev creations.

On Tuesday night, the first of two programmes brought Balanchine’s Apollo led by Thomas Edur, impeccable, radiant, as the young god, and wonderfully tender in his relationship with Agnes Oaks’s eloquent Terpsichore. The Muses’ Lagerfeld tutus are beautiful, and a happy link with the fact that Gabrielle Chanel designed costumes for the Muses in 1928. The evening ended with a revival of that turnip-ghost Schéhérazade. In 1910 it was “about” daring eroticism amid Bakst’s impassioned colours. The lust is sheer mummery nowadays (served up with panache by Elena Glurdjidze and Dmitri Gruzhdyev – pictured above – as Zobeide and her slave), but the designs still glow and smoulder as eunuchs and the denizens of a harem call for room service. And for all its manic unlikeliness, this version has a mad, believing-in-itself energy.

About the other pieces I comment with some reluctance. A certain amount of hoo-hah has been generated since Lagerfeld designed the costume for The Dying Swan (tenuously part of the Ballets Russes repertoire) and it is a mass of feathers, boasting a throttling ruff and an over-excited bodice that deform Glurdjidze’s beauty. About a revival of Le Spectre de la rose, I record that the production is decent and that Australian Ballet guests (Gina Brescianini with Daniel Gaudiello and, at a second performance, Tzu-Chao Chu) are wholly at a loss in this subtle but very dated masterpiece. There is also a mauvais quart d’heure supposedly linked to L’Après midi d’un faune, by David Dawson, which boasts a bare stage, a two-piano arrangement of the score, and two male dancers involved in the love that once upon a time dared not speak its name, let alone dance it. Esteban Berlanga and Raphael Coumes-Marquet move tortuously to their unmerited doom.

On Wednesday a second Ballets Russes programme brought Les Sylphides in Alicia Markova’s loving staging. It was danced with admirable sensitivity by its cast: Thomas Edur an ideal Poet, Agnes Oaks floating through the nocturne in his arms, Crystal Costa impeccable, delicious in the little waltz, and Elena Glurdjidze soaring through the mazurka. This beautiful ballet floated on the night air. And as a culmination, Kenneth MacMillan’s realisation of The Rite of Spring – that earthquake of the new whose shock-waves we still feel – its patterns vivid on the Wells stage, its imagery tremendous, and with Sarah McIlroy a fine Chosen One. Here, as in Sylphides and Apollo, Diaghilev lived. ★★★★☆

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