Had he lived another hundred years, it's a fair bet that Serge Diaghilev would have been first in the queue to commission costume designs from Karl Lagerfeld – though, come to think of it, only if Vivienne Westwood had turned him down first. If Diaghilev and his Ballets Russes stood for any one thing, it was the shock of the new.
Top marks to English Ballet for its media nous but, as it turned out, the much publicised Lagerfeld-designed tutu for The Dying Swan (White? Check. Feathery? Check) was the least compelling item in the company's two-programme celebration of the Ballets Russes. It was 100 years ago that the company of Russian ex-pats blew apart the tastefully painted walls of theatre convention and changed the dance landscape forever, and the vividness of these two evenings brought that home.
The first of them opened with Apollo, created by Balanchine to a score by Stravinsky – a landmark in 1928 still thrillingly fresh. Coco Chanel had designed the original costumes with a sure feel for the clean lines of classical Greece. Alas Lagerfeld just doesn't get it: his gauzy handkerchief-hem frocks prettify the Muses and contradict the ballet's Modernism. Yet the dazzling clarity and originality of the steps wins through, with Agnes Oaks finding a stern and beauteous poise as Terpsichore, to Thomas Edur's bold, muscular Apollo, striking poses whose outlines burn on the retina. Both dancers retire this season and if I remember nothing else from their 20-year stage partnership, the serenity of their swimming-in-air sequence will suffice, Oaks balancing her sternum on the spine of the crouching Edur.
The battle of good sense versus the whims of the pony-tailed one continued as Elena Glurdjidze overcame the strictures of an ostrich-trimmed neck-ruff and bulky breastplate to give an especially pliant and affecting Dying Swan (though this was never really a Ballets Russes number: it was the party-piece of Anna Pavlova on her world tours). My own difficulty with this little crowd-pleaser is that, however well it's done, I can never quite banish from my mind the Trocks' savage parody, and the tutu that moults.
Easy to mock, too, is Le Spectre de la Rose, the scented waltz-duet created in 1911. She is a swooning maiden returned from her first ball, he the spirit of a flower, clad in nothing but a few carefully placed petals and what was surely the prototype for those floriferous swimming hats you used to find in Boots. Yet Daniel Gaudiello and Gina Brescianni, guesting from Australian Ballet, magnificently overcame the quaint factor by upping the pheromone count. Gaudiello has the advantage of an exceptionally fine physique, which made it credible that a young girl would swoon when he leapt through her bedroom window. Legend has it that women actually fainted at the sight of Nijinsky's jump in 1911, though no doubt Diaghilev, ever the wily publicist, had a hand in the story.
No Ballets Russes tribute is complete without a new work, and ENB came up with a corker. David Dawson's Faun(e), a duet to Debussy's score arranged for two pianos, contained just enough familiar material to anchor it to its source – oriental angled hands, an animal sinuousness – but claimed new territory in its homoeroticism (appropriate, given Diaghilev's feelings for Nijinsky). Esteban Berlanga and guest Raphael Coumes-Marguet danced handsomely, cutting a dash in beige jersey two-pieces that wouldn't look amiss in Evans Outsize, yet which in this context were exotic.
The evening reached its giddy climax with Scheherazade. Granted, it's "Carry on Up the Kasbah" in pointe shoes, but it's set to glorious Rimsky-Korsakov, and its gaudy magic worked.