Review: English National Ballet in Ballet Russes at Sadler's Wells

Performance: 16 - 20 Jun 09
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Wednesday 17 June 2009

English National Ballet 'Apollo' Dancers: Thomas Edur and Agnes Oaks. Photo: Michael Garner

It is 100 years since Sergei Diaghilev launched his Ballets Russes – bringing the essence of Russian ballet to the west while catapulting the art form into 20th century modernism. All around the world, companies are celebrating this centenary and many (like the ENB) can trace their lineage straight back to Diaghilev’s seed. The ENB has succeeded in capturing the mix of innovation, patronage, design quality, great music and dance performances and over-the-top vulgarity that mixes into a heady cocktail that is Les Ballets Russes.

It’s not normal to be besieged by photographers walking up a red carpet to enter Sadler’s Wells but I happened to arrive alongside a pink-shirted, surprisingly svelte-looking Stephen Fry and Damien Lewis (who played Soames in the modern remake of the Forsythe Saga). Maybe it was the clash of hair and shirt (or perhaps the very pretty girl accompanying said actor) but the photographers went wild although steadfastly ignoring my own feeble attempts at a pose. It occurred to me that Diaghilev would have loved this celebrity-fuelled publicity; I’m sure he would have adored Stephen Fry, too, and I suspect a hundred years earlier the man who played Oscar Wilde and Diaghilev would have dined after the show. It’s an intriguing thought!

The other unique ingredient of this excellent evening was revitalising the link between Diaghilev and Chanel. Coco Chanel not only designed for Les Ballets Russes, she also occasionally bank-rolled the company and paid for Diaghilev’s Venetian Funeral in 1929. Now, Karl Lagerfeld (Chanel’s Creative Director) has designed the tutu for *The Dying Swan*, performed here by the divine Elena Glurdjidze (a dancer who deserves to be dressed in Lagerfeld and drenched in Chanel). You don’t have to take my word for it since you can see Lagerfeld’s own film of Glurjidze dancing the unwell – but beautifully attired – swan here .

David Dawson’s new work, *Faun(e)* started promisingly with lovely sensitive, swirling choreography for guest dancer Raphaël Coumes-Marquet (of Dresden SemperOper ballet) and Esteban Berlanga but failed to convince me that it added much, if anything, to D*ebussy’s* wonderful short score. Nijinsky’s own *L’après-midi d’un faune* _is so stunningly entwined with the music that it’s hard to associate it with other choreography although Jerry Robbins’ _Afternoon of a Faun manages to survive in its own right. The two men (dressed in billowing skirts by Yumiko Takeshima) danced always with a beautiful, serene flow and it was set evocatively in a simple studio, danced around two pianists. I think Faun(e) might be a work that grows on me after several viewings but it didn’t entirely work, first time.

How good it was to see Thomas Edur and Agnes Oaks (exactly a fortnight ahead of their final performances in London) as Apollo and his favourite muse, Terpsichore. They are both retiring in their prime. These were exciting, mature and elegant performances with a rich sense of musicality and line, well matched by the two additional muses, Erina Takahashi and Daria Klimentová, in a stellar cast, all also wearing costumes designed by Lagerfeld (albeit on loan from Les Ballets de Monte Carlo). There was also a rather lovely, authentic *Le Spectre de la Rose*, excellently performed by two guest artists from Australian Ballet, Daniel Gaudiello and Gina Brescianini.

But despite these outstanding performances, my favourite work of the evening was a sumptuous, opulent *Schéhérazade*, which looked as if it had stepped out of the ballet history books. Knowing that Diaghilev – as a young man – helped the composer Rimsky-Korsakov lay out the body of Tchaikovsky (when others would not go near the dead composer’s apartment for fear of contracting cholera) gives this work a special relevance. In their debuts as Zobeide – the Shah’s favourite but unfaithful wife – and the Golden Slave, Elena Glurdjidze and Dimitri Gruzdyev were irresistibly eye-commanding and Daniel Jones’s roly-poly, wibbly-wobbly, big-hatted Chief Eunuch was a character of enormous fun. The work was brilliantly designed by Geoffrey Guy (after Léon Bakst’s originals) and – although I had some reservations about the funereal pace of ApolloRimsky-Korsakov’s delicious score was treated lovingly by the ENB’s Orchestra under Gavin Sutherland.

A great end to a celebratory evening that did justice to Diaghilev and his Ballets Russes. I hope the celebs enjoyed it; I have a feeling that Stephen Fry will have approved.

[ He does indeed tweet that his evening was ‘sublime’! – Ed]

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