In the Spirit of Diaghilev

Wayne McGregor / Russell Maliphant / Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui / Javier De Frutos

Sadlers Wells

(2009)

Review by Vera Liber

In this centenary year of the founding of the Ballets Russes there have been galas and tributes to Diaghilev and his legacy, but Alistair Spalding, artistic director of Sadler's Wells, has taken the bolder step of commissioning four of his associate choreographers to respond 'in the spirit of Diaghilev'. And it has paid off.

Each choreographer responds in his signature way, which makes for an interesting programme, and they each have a loyal following. Demand for tickets was high. A highlight of the contemporary ballet season, I'd say, if not quite in the scandalous 1913 Paris debut of The Rite of Spring league - only a few walkouts to the crude final piece by Javier De Frutos, a wild misjudgement on his part, maybe. Diaghilev was a 'warrior for beauty', he liked the 'friction and fire of the new', but also 'the art of yesterday'.

Wayne McGregor's Dyad 1909 (do not misread that as Dryad), which, in his declaration of intent, was inspired by the "scientific, social, political and technological perspective" of the Ballet Russes period 1909-1929… by Shackleton's 1909 Antarctic expedition, and Richard Evelyn Byrd's 1929 flight over the South Pole… by the technological revolution of those twenty years.

A tenuous, tangential link to Diaghilev, but in his collaboration with the University of California San Diego Interactive Cognition Lab, McGregor is trying to investigate the "distributive nature of choreographic thinking"… With intimations of a futuristic, constructivist, robotic science fiction world, McGregor's latest is an idiosyncratically inscrutable work, dedicated to the memory of Merce Cunningham.

Collaborating with 21-year-old Icelandic composer Ólafur Arnalds (ethereal electronic sounds), German costume designer Moritz Junge, and British video artists, Jane and Louise Wilson (1999 Turner prize nominees), whose intriguing images on geometric shapes and reflecting mirrors placed on and above the stage distract, McGregor also has his own international company of dancers, Random Dance, well-attuned to his creative demands. He demands a lot, and they deliver - wonderful dancers.

Fast precision turns, angular joints, fluid bodies, feints, overextensions, shoulders pinned back, backs arched, ribs pointing to heaven, never a wrong placement. Birds of paradise - here in glittering black leotards and black diamond muzzle masks - strutting and posing, in high velocity courtship display. And the duets are sublime.

But, is McGregor channelling Diaghilev from across the divide? Does his intellectualising of an organic form have anything to do with Diaghilev's 'world of art'?

No such questions with Maliphant's AfterLight. Inspired by Nijinsky's sketches - swirling shapes, the arcs of dance's ebb and flow - Maliphant has one dancer turning and spinning like a mobile caught on a breeze, in the light of the dying sun. Dreamy, romantic, pure movement exploring space to the very fingertips fluttering like butterflies under Michael Hulls' dust-flecked dim sculpting spotlight. Arms tasselling, torso yielding to Satie's Gnossiennes, Nijinsky is captured in a simple concept. Daniel Proietto is the Spectre de la Rose, is the Slave, is Petrushka, is le faune. Beautiful.

Nor with Cherkaoui's Faun. A direct response to L'Après-midi d'un faune, apparently inspired by the animalism of his male dancer, muscular James O'Hara, and Nijinsky's daring explicit interpretation of sexual awakening.

In a shady glade the faun gambols and tumbles in joyful physical exertion, meets his playmate (an amazingly flexible Daisy Phillips), they intertwine in innocent Platonic exploration and curiosity, then all the senses come into play. The dancing is soft, strong, gymnastic, seductive, and as natural as creation itself.

The duality of nature is captured in the music, Debussy complemented by Nitin Sawhney's interjections of sampled mix (Mongolian throat singers amongst it!). A fusion of bodies, and music. Wonderful.

Now, we come to the grotesque showstopper - Eternal Damnation to Sancho and Sanchez by the Venezuelan De Frutos. A mocking rant - think Ken Russell's The Devils, think De Sade, think Pasolini, think Francis Bacon's Pope. More a piece of dance theatre than dance. It takes a long time for any dance to kick in.

Is this self-indulgent épater la bourgeoisie number a deconstruction of Balanchine's Apollo in YBA exhibitionist style? Or does De Frutos know that Diaghilev visited Baron Richard von Krafft-Ebing, the sexologist and psychiatrist who studied sexual aberrations?

A Tracey Emin-esque blue neon 'Amuse me' sign descends from the heavens. A whiff of incense in the air, and a wild frenzied orgy, smudged lipsticks and smeared black eye makeup, tediously ensues. The costumes are pale blue silky ecclesiastical gowns, the backcloth a pale priapic fresco in Michelangelo pastiche.

Pregnant muses, one of them Juana La Puta, wail incantations, pray for the forgiveness of sins, finger their rosaries and each other, and a lecherous hunchback deformed pope-figure with outsize padded buttocks and breasts rapes Apolon. Thankfully, he expires on his throne, lit up like Warhol's electric chair, which explodes in a blaze of fireworks. Ha, ha. Visually bland, its prankish choreography is sloppy and dull, and not in the least bit erotic. And as a satirical response to Cocteau's scenarios, which De Frutos professes… Boring. Good job it was saved for the end.