Beyond Ballets Russes, Coliseum, London

The best of times, the worst of times, at the Coliseum as English National Ballet’s spring season unveiled the first of two programmes that consider the legacy of the Ballets Russes. We have not yet got over – nor ever will – that explosion of talent and Russian genius which Diaghilev inspired through two decades of prodigious creativity. We copy, we seek still to emulate, but few performances could rival, and none, surely, surpass, the bravura and sometimes effrontery with which Diaghilev altered dance in the theatre for ever.

Wayne Eagling’s programming for this brief season is thoughtful and, I venture, over-optimistic. To entrust Stravinsky’s Firebird score to a novice choreographer was generous but, in the event, ferociously unwise. To propose a reconstruction of Nijinsky’s L’Après-midi d’un faune from the choreographer’s own notations, in the ballet’s centenary year, is fascinating, but the result on Thursday night lacked that bloom of sensuality so exquisitely captured in Baron de Meyer’s photographs of its first staging. (We sometimes forget that the early Diaghilev seasons brought the first openly erotic ballets to the western stage.) David Dawson’s dank modernisation which followed, set to the two-piano version of the score, is soggily homoerotic and numbingly predictable.

This programme is justified by new decoration for Kenneth MacMillan’s Rite of Spring from Kinder Aggugini, who costumes the tribal community in black leotards, textured and marked by patches of red, cut to knee- or calf-length, the dancers having tattoo-like markings along the jawline and wearing dark caps. The Elders are shown as monsters from some oriental theatre. There is no setting other than light, pouring from above or defining the dance area from the wings. This austerity insists on exceptional choreographic legibility: patterns, driving impulses, become vivid, and the choreographic shape of the entire work very cogent.

No praise too great for ENB’s artists, who moved splendidly and untiringly as one, or for their coaches. Or for Erina Takahashi, who caught the inevitability of the Chosen One’s identity. Or for the ENB orchestra under Gavin Sutherland, bringing blazing life to a still-staggering score. These performances mark the 50th anniversary of this choreography, whose unfailing imagery and musical sensibility would surely have delighted Diaghilev.

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