Firebird/ Faune/ Rite of Spring, English National Ballet, ENB, London Coliseum, March 2012Posted on 24 March 2012
Beyond Ballets Russes celebrates the legacy of Diaghilev’s famous dance company, and is the title of two programmes the ENB are putting on. This first one was very cleverly put together, placing The Afternoon of a Faune, with its gentle music by Debussy, between two longer works to intensely dramatic music by Stravinsky.
In fact there are four ballets here, not three, because Faune is given in two versions. One uses Nijinsky’s original choreography with designs by Leon Bakst, performed to music played by the orchestra; the other is an abstract work choreographed by David Dawson, with Debussy’s music played on two pianos. They have separate titles: L’Après-midi d’un faune being the original, and Faun(e) the abstract version. The first, with its very stylised movements for the nymphs, featured Anton Lukovkin as the faune and Begoña Cao as the lead nymph. His portrayal of a youthful faune, oozing immense yet scarcely suppressed desire, was very effective.
The second version by David Dawson, first shown at Sadler’s Wells in 2009, was beautifully performed by principal dancer Raphaël Coumes-Marquet, and Jan Casier a brilliant young member of the corps at the Royal Ballet of Flanders, making his debut with the ENB. The power of their movements captures the awakening desires inherent in Debussy’s music, and they are still moving as the front drop comes down.
After the second interval came the Rite of Spring, with Kenneth MacMillan’s 1962 choreography adapted and re-staged by Yuri Uchiumi. New costumes by fashion designer Kinder Aggugini are the same for both girls and boys, except for the three shamans, and along with John B. Read’s lighting give an air of dark mystery to this springtime ritual with its sacrificial victim. The company danced it well with Tamarin Stott excellent as the victim.
Oddly enough the newly choreographed Firebird that started the evening had a very Rite of Spring feel at some points. Diaghilev gave the original commission for this ballet to Fokine, with music commissioned from Stravinsky. The idea was to tell an old Russian folk tale about a maiden trapped in the realm of a deathless magician, discovered by a prince who himself is trapped, before the firebird comes to his rescue. Here the idea by choreographer George Williamson was quite different.
There was a firebird, brilliantly portrayed by Ksenia Ovsyanick, but there the similarities seem to end. Among solo roles was a peacock, an ‘army captain’, a celebrity in a red dress, ‘purity’ in a white dress, and three muses in maroon costumes. All were superbly danced, and I thought Junor Souza as the captain was outstanding. But what reminded me of the Rite of Spring was the way the firebird was treated like a sacrificial victim. As she was stripped of feathers, headdress and jewellery, it reminded me of the ancient Mesopotamian legend of the descent of Ishtar to the underworld. Ishtar returns after first being stripped of her clothes and adornments, yet returns intact to the world above, and this is a death and rebirth story, like the vegetation that returns to life in spring. If the title of this ballet had been Ishtar’s Descent I would not have been the least surprised, and I thought the costumes by David Bamber, and the set design by Bamber and choreographer George Williamson wonderfully apt to the story that rose into my mind, as well as to the choreography and music.
The company are dancing brilliantly, and this whole mixed bill has to be seen, particularly the extraordinary Firebird. Performances continue at the London Coliseum until March 27 — for details click here. After that comes the second part of Beyond Ballets Russes, starting on Wednesday, March 28th. All praise to Wayne Eagling on his artistic direction of the company, and why on earth are they getting rid of him?