Review: Tribute to Diaghilev at Royal Opera House

Performance: 8 Jun 09
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Monday 15 June 2009

It is odd that the two most popularly acclaimed works in this gala performance (produced by Ensemble Productions) to celebrate the centenary of the Ballets Russes and Sergei Diaghilev were from two ballets he tried to move away from – *Swan Lake* and Giselle. But I suppose on an evening dominated by corporate guests, it’s equally unsurprising that these excerpts from two of the world’s favourite ballets should prove to be the most popular. Perhaps, it is also evidence that for all his greatness and the innovation that Diaghilev bought to ballet in his 20-year reign, he really failed to change public tastes in any significant way.

Of course, Diaghilev had box office problems as much as anyone and he presented Giselle and Swan Lake on the Ballets Russes to help make ends meet. He just didn’t have much enthusiasm for them. At this gala, the Royal Ballet’s Marianella Nuñez was exhilaratingly eager to please – partnered by her real-life love, Thiago Soares – she effectively stole the show, with a consummate performance of the black swan pas de deux, placing her rightly in the world-class league of ballerinas, already well represented here by the sublime Ulyana Lopatkina (opening and closing the show with Fokine’s Schéhérazade and *The Dying Swan*). Her arms are their own masterclass of line and flow.

Two other legendary performers were unfortunately absent; Farukh Ruzimatov – now the artistic director of the Mikhailovsky Ballet – and Alina Cojocaru; the former was replaced in _*Schéhérazade*_by Igor Zelensky (a man well used to the international gala circuit) and the latter by the Birmingham Royal Ballet dancer, Natasha Oughtred, for whom this was a belated first taste of such stardom. Dancing in Ashton’s _*Daphnis and Chloë* _she seemed so much more at ease than in her Royal Ballet years and gave a delightful performance, partnered by Federico Bonelli.

The other highlights for me were Alexandra Ansanelli’s delightful, playful portrayal of *La Chatte Métamorphosée en Femme* – Ashton’s gala party-piece to Offenbach (made as an homage to Fanny Elssler); and the young Paris Opera Ballet dancers, Matthias Heymann and Mathilde Froustey, in the second Act pas de deux from Giselle. As Heymann tore through Albrecht’s variation, I was reminded that in the last Ensemble Productions Gala on this stage (to celebrate Maya Plisetskaya’s 80th birthday) Ivan Putrov suffered the appalling injury that put him out for over a year.

The most extraordinary performance was Irma Nioradze’s ‘Firebird’, her facial expressions being outrageously and comically over the top, quite destroying the imperious impact and majesty of the creature. Unfortunately, the other work performed by Noriadze (partnered by Ilya Kuznetsov) – _*Tamar* _choreographed by Jurijus Smoriginas – in which Noriadze portrays a crazed Georgian Queen who lures passers-by to her bed and to their death was as bizarre as the plotline suggests.

All in all, this was a strange mixed bag of ballet excerpts, some of which had a clear relevance to an evening of Diaghilevian celebration (Petrushka, Les Sylphides, Le Spectre de la Rose) and others much less so. Despite the quality of the dancers, there was an overall effect of a show thrown together without much clarity of intention. The opening film of the Ballets Russes was not narrated and – even to experts – it was not altogether clear what the exact relevance of each brief clip was. Worst of all, the stage management was a fiasco with curtains literally coming down on performers about to take their bows or not coming down at all when they clearly should have done.

It is right and proper to celebrate Diaghilev’s immense contribution to ballet but I wonder if these ill-assorted bite-sized chunks do anything to progress the art form; at one silent point in proceedings a man in the stalls blew his nose very loudly, which produced a ripple of laughter throughout the auditorium. Somehow, it summed up the evening’s relevance to its subject.

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