Beyond Ballets Russes Programme 1 : Firebird, L’après-midi d’un faune, Faun(e), The Rite of Spring

English National Ballet

London Coliseum

From 22 March 2012 to 27 March 2012

Review by Vera Liber

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What a culture of dance, design and music Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes have willed the dance world and the world of art. What a legacy, what rich pickings.

English National Ballet’s first programme (of two) responds vividly with an enigmatic Firebird choreographed by George Williamson, a young dancer with the company, this his first commission; a centre piece, Nijinsky’s L’après-midi d’un faune echoed and mirrored by David Dawson’s Faun(e); and new costumes for Kenneth MacMillan’s 1962 Rite of Spring, two Stravinsky scores hard-shouldering gentle Debussy…

If not for the programme notes one would be hard-pressed to make out what Williamson is trying to show with his twenty-first century re-imaging of Fokine’s 1910 Firebird. First impressions are that we have strayed into a nouveau riche Russian kitsch extravaganza: gladiators, sultry muses, and a mysterious magical creature in burnished gold mutating into an art nouveau odalisque. Who are they, what is their purpose on this unearthly Olympian galaxy?

Gods and mortals in conflict perhaps? They are Firebird (obviously), Peacock, Purity, Lead Celebrity, Army Captain, and three Muses in red, with gold tipped toe shoes that do not improve the dance, (all not so obviously), the futuristic and classical combined, ‘highlighting’ both ‘the world pushing its resources and environment to the limit’ and ‘the potential for structural change and equality’…

Confused and confusing, but Ksenia Ovsyanick is a wonderful Firebird, haughty and amphibian sleek in David Bamber’s Klimt spectrum costumes, and Junor Souza almost makes a Spartacus of the Army Captain, but better to draw a veil over the rest.

Petit junior soloist Anton Lukovin makes a good moody debut as the Faune in a revival of Nijinsky’s L’après-midi d’un faune, against Léon Bakst’s Fauvist backcloth. And points up the travesty that was the Putrov / Polunin version in the recent Men in Motion.

The Nymphs wear the most beautiful pleated Fortuny style Grecian gowns, also by Bakst, and move across the stage like bandes dessinées—Begona Cao debuts as Lead Nymph. Incidentally, I attended the second night.

In David Dawson’s Faun(e), Jan Casier of the Royal Ballet of Flanders and Raphaël Coumes-Marquet, principal at the Dresden SemperOper Ballet, move in brilliant duet, long arms curving, intertwining, guiding. The older more muscular one passing on all he knows to the younger slighter one, the stag to the buck, the continuing line of dance history, before he fades away and gives the floor to the budding adolescent. A magnificent call and response between the two, and between the two pieces: a display of dancing that lifts the spirit and inspires the soul.

On a bare rehearsal stage, just two grand pianos (Kevin Darvas and Chris Swithinbank) and empty space, in fawn calf length socks, and knee length chamois leather look loincloths, two proud males, ribs out, backs arched, soft undulating arms, dance with disarming fluency an initiation, a love of the dance, and for each other, a rite of passage.

MacMillan’s The Rite of Spring, given new life by Kinder Aggugini’s computer age costumes, Bronislava black brown with deep red markings, and facial tattoos, moves from gentle Aboriginal ochre hand prints on body stockings to sportive Maori haka power.

Primitive collective rituals, grand council meetings, witch doctors select the human sacrifice, who dances her way out through the ranks, passing like a slug over a line of caterpillar hands, and finally yields to the blood sacrifice in a lengthy solo (excellent debut by first artist Tamarin Stott).

African carvings, Picasso figurines, iconic totems, Aztec splayed finger poses, bums and feet out, eyes scared, beetling puppets in a larger mystery, huddle and stomp in group hypnosis and hysteria, Stravinsky beats and climactic rhythms amplified by a stage filled with sixty-four dancers. Mind-blowing.