Beyond Ballets Russes, Coliseum, London

You can teach an old bird new tricks – but they might not be as good as the old ones

You could be forgiven a sense of déja vu. All last year, dance companies were queuing up to pay their dues to the Ballets Russes, the phenomenon that first united art, sex, music and fashion on the theatre stage. The V&A's Diaghilev exhibition opened in 2010. How long can a centenary be?

English National Ballet, always cash-strapped, is probably being canny in capitalising on that flurry of interest in two programmes presented under the banner Beyond Ballets Russes. After all, 2012 is the 100th birthday of Vaslav Nijinsky's L'après-midi d'un faune, here accorded both a careful reconstruction and a daring spin-off.

First, though, comes a new treatment of The Firebird, an illustration in negative of how inspired an impresario Serge Diaghilev was. An unknown 26-year-old called Igor Stravinsky hands him a score for a piece called Fireworks, and this is enough for him to take a punt on an hour's worth of music on the theme of a magic bird.

ENB's outgoing artistic director Wayne Eagling must have thought he detected similar glints of greatness in 21-year-old choreographer George Williamson, a graduate of ENB's school. Using one of Stravinsky's own shorter versions of his score, Williamson's half-hour Firebird chucks out the story of the Prince, the golden apples and 12 princesses, and replaces it with ... well, what? An Armageddon scenario in which a bird has her plumage plucked, then gets it back.

How else to explain a cast that includes a scowling, bare-chested Army Captain (Junor Souza on storming form), a Lead Celebrity (Adela Ramirez in a cocktail frock, seething like Wallis Simpson spotting a rival at a party) and Three Muses with rock-chick hair (wrong ballet surely?). There's also a male Peacock and a wafty girl called Purity. Together, it reads like a video game in which you score points by collecting feathers.

Ksenia Ovsyanick is an impressively gymnastic Firebird bizarrely upstaged by her own costume, a slinky, gold-blotched number (by David Bamber) that intriguingly acquires rainbow streaks as the ballet proceeds.

The Rite of Spring survives ENB's revisionist zeal rather better. Kenneth MacMillan's superb 1962 choreography remains intact, and the new costume designs by Kinder Aggugini – fuzzy outlines of internal organs appliquéd over transparent black nylon – are so elaborate that they read simply as black. This lends the teeming chorus the character of a colony of ants – acting as one, unstoppable, frightening – less ancient rites, more modern militia. Combined with superlative playing from the orchestra of ENB under Gavin Sutherland, magical lighting by John B Read that entirely removes the need for a backcloth, and volcanic energy from a galvanised, 36-strong cast, this Rite is a triumph. My only cavil was that Erina Takahashi made her dance to the death look easy. Her Chosen One made you think she could have gone 10 minutes more before collapsing.

It's become a truism that what excited or shocked a century ago can leave us unmoved today. Yet the sheer strangeness of L'après-midi d'un faune, with its oddly flattened, almost 2D movement and its slumbrous Debussy score, registers still, even if we no longer care what the goaty boy (here a rather stiff Dmitri Gruzdyev) gets up to with that scarf.

Following it, David Dawson's Faun(e), a delicately homerotic duet praised before in this column, transposes a stream of Nijinskian imagery to the bodies of two Greek youths from a classical frieze. With Debussy's heat haze relayed by two onstage pianos, and super-supple performances from Jan Casier and Raphael Coumes-Marquet, this is one legacy Diaghilev would have approved.

 

This programme is repeated today and Tue. Programme II runs from Wed to 1 Apr (0871 911 0200)

Dance choice

A modern fairy tale based on a Hans Christian Andersen fable, The Most Incredible Thing, centres on a design competition that has marriage to a princess as its prize. With music by synth-pop duo the Pet Shop Boys and choreography by Javier de Frutos, the production is lively, loud, and family friendly. At Sadler's Wells, London, (Mon to 7 Apr).

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