Feature: Stravinsky and the Ballets Russes

Friday 9 April 2010

DVD - Stravinsky and the Ballets Russes Stravinsky and the Ballets Russes (DVD £22.99 & BLURAY £29.99)
- featuring The Firebird & Rite of Spring, with the Mariinsky Orchestra & Ballet & conductor Valery Gergiev.
Available through Dancebooks.co.uk
In celebration of the debut of the Ballets Russes in Paris in 1909, this Stravinsky evening at the Mariinsky Theatre showcases the original Nijinsky version of The Rite of Spring for the first time on DVD along with The Firebird, both conducted by Valery Gergiev. Thanks to the work of Millicent Hodson, Nijinsky’s original choreography has now been recreated, performed by the lead dancers and Ballet Company of the Saint Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theatre.

We have 5 DVD copies to give away! Just answer this question: In what year did the Ballet Russes first perform Le Sacre du Printemps and you’ll be entered into our prize draw. “enter here“:
Competition closed at 10am on 1 Sept 09

Reviewed by Graham Watts
At any quality, this is a ‘must’ for a balletomane’s DVD library. The fact that it’s amongst the finest high definition recordings of ballet that I’ve yet seen ought to take it mainstream. Add the fact that, under Valery Gergiev‘s direction, it is an exquisite recording of these Stravinsky classics, even further enhanced by the audio-only option in the menu, and this becomes a ‘must-have’ item.

The hidden gem is a half-hour interview with Millicent Hodson and Kenneth Archer, the duo responsible for painstakingly recreating *Le Sacre du Printemps* as first performed in 1913. Nijinsky‘s steps were not notated and since the nightly riot on the Champs Élysées forced it off the stage after only 8 performances, one can only imagine the immense work that must have gone into its reconstruction more than 70 years later. Thankfully, Marie Rambert – who had been Nijinsky’s assistant at the Ballets Russes – was still alive to pass crucial information to Hodson as she began the task. For anyone interested in the history of ballet or early twentieth century music and art, this little interview is of immense significance (but put the sound up because it’s sometimes a little quiet!).

Hodson describes Nijinsky as the “first choreographer” – believing all those that came before to be Ballet Masters who arranged highly disciplined steps into a heavily codified form. She sees Nijinsky as the much-maligned beginning of a family tree that led straight to Merce Cunningham. I was much struck by this reference, since when watching the reconstructed ‘Le Sacre du Printemps’ I had myself been attracted to the Cunningham link, especially at the end of the first part, when 44 dancers are performing distinct and separate solos simultaneously.

The vivid clarity of both *L’Oiseau de Feu (The Firebird)* and *Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring)* is striking throughout the film: both ballets run in one seamless performance, joined together by an interior panorama of the Mariinsky Theatre. Dance on film is often ruined by inappropriate editing and camera angles but here the director (Denis Caïozzi) has mostly a dancer’s eye for the shot. There are moments where a close-up is overdone (sometimes spoiling the fantasy in HD by getting into the make-up and under the mask) and although the low camera angles and shots from overhead add interesting perspective, repeated too often, they also lose the performance flow.

The performances themselves are dramatic and delightful, especially Ekaterina Kondaurova‘s imperious Firebird and Alexandra Iosifidi’s proud but scared ‘The Chosen One’. Kondaurova’s soaring jetés and rippling, fluid pas de bourreés are exemplary whilst Iosifidi’s stylistic, rousing pagan dance of death was mesmeric. Ilya Kuznetsov was a solid Ivan Tsarevich, especially in his partnering of Kondaurova, but it was a shame that each close-up captured a very obvious sniff. The reconstructed set and costume designs in both works look gorgeous in HD and the Firebird was permanently bathed in a luminous red glow that truly made her feathers appear to be ablaze.

In addition to the aforementioned interview with the reconstructors, the DVD opens with some lovely shots of modern-day St Petersburg and there’s also a brief but interesting documentary, in French with the option of English sub-titles, on Diaghilev and Stravinsky, which includes film of Iosifidi rehearsing her role as the Chosen One. There is also a fascinating and informative accompanying booklet with equal sections reproduced in French, English and German.

The star of the DVD is not any of the dancers but the conductor. Gergiev’s flowing, idiosyncratic technique and unwavering concentration is scrutinised in minute detail throughout both overtures and periodically during the film. The crisp clarity of both performances is simply as good as it gets and turned to audio mode this DVD will have another life doubling as a CD.

Review by Geoff Brown in the Times
“after two minutes of The Firebird the curtain rises and we’re dazzled by fairytale splendour. Reconstructions of the original 1910 designs of Alexander Golovin, Léon Bakst and Michel Fokine fill the screen with layered castles and foliage. Flying and leaping in Fokine’s reconstructed choreography comes the firebird herself (Ekaterina Kondaurova), sparking into life Fokine’s simple scenario of good trouncing evil. Watching and listening bring no disjunctions. Music and design blend like hand and glove, and Gergiev’s orchestra brings its own fusillade of colours. “
Read the full article, Times, 14 August 2009

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