Celebrating Diaghilev, Royal Opera House, London

Return of the real Pan's people
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The Independent Culture

Today it's barely thinkable that a single person might have the vision, the nous and the commercial clout to revolutionise an entire generation's ideas about dance, modern music and stage design - not to mention the knock-on influence on fashion and interiors. But that's what Serge Diaghilev achieved in the decades either side of the First World War. He wasn't a composer, nor did he paint or choreograph. What Diaghilev did was talent-spot and match-make with phenomenal success, and as this tribute by the Royal Ballet shows, we're still drawing on that legacy 75 years after his death.

Today it's barely thinkable that a single person might have the vision, the nous and the commercial clout to revolutionise an entire generation's ideas about dance, modern music and stage design - not to mention the knock-on influence on fashion and interiors. But that's what Serge Diaghilev achieved in the decades either side of the First World War. He wasn't a composer, nor did he paint or choreograph. What Diaghilev did was talent-spot and match-make with phenomenal success, and as this tribute by the Royal Ballet shows, we're still drawing on that legacy 75 years after his death.

First up is Daphnis and Chloe, in the version Frederick Ashton made 40 years after Diaghilev asked Ravel to write the score. On its last revival the Royal ditched John Craxton's 1951 designs. This time they're back, their knobbly, Matisse-inspired radiance restored. How good to find the current regime brave enough to take such a U-turn - after all, tastes change, and what once looked old-fashioned can soon acquire vintage cachet. Here the girls in their swingy, lollipop-bright dresses and the boys in their chinos and shirts seem straight from a Fifties musical - the kids from West Side Story decamped to a sunny Greek island. Federico Bonelli makes an endearing Daphnis-cum-Tony, innocent and earnest with a lovely line and a light jump. Miyako Yoshida is a period-perfect Chloe/Maria, fresh as ozone and oh so pretty, just the kind of delicate bud that would be plucked by a black-hearted pirate.

If at times the glittering swell of Ravel's choral and orchestral score threatens to swamp the choreography (the music gets a gorgeous performance under conductor Barry Wordsworth), the drama holds up surprisingly well. I love the little low-tech details that place the piece in its time: the spooky wind-machine noises that herald the arrival of Pan, the flickering searchlights a fore-runner of strobe. Even the loops of woollen chest hair on Pan's costume suggest a view of antiquity of a wide-eyed, more impressionable age. The delicate transparency of Ashton's ballet invites us to be awed by such simple means.

But is it possible in the 21st century to believe in a man dressed up as a rose petal? Until earlier this year I had despaired of ever seeing a performance of Spectre de la Rose that explained the excitement of 1911. Vladimir Malakhov's androgynous, almost amorphous Spectre, seen in a Sadler's Wells gala a few months ago, gave an idea. This was no construct of muscle and bone, but an impersonation of something nearer a scent, intangible, barely there. The Royal Ballet's attempt - its first ever - doesn't reach this pitch, but Ivan Putrov (despite battling with a violently pink costume) comes close. He brings to his Spectre the same swooning lissomness that makes his Bluebird in Sleeping Beauty such a knockout. The jump seems inexhaustible. The double turns land like kittens. Technically, it's hard to see how it could be bettered - it's just that I never quite believed in this creature as something wafted in through a girl's window. The effort is still too present.

The opposite holds true of L'Après-midi d'un faune, where Nijinsky's austere choreography gives the title role nothing to impress with at all. Yet Carlos Acosta has the measure of it. Earth-bound and two-dimensional, his long splayed thumbs held proud, this faun could stop clocks with the feral stillness of his gaze. And the single time he turns his eyes on the audience seems more alarming in its nervy sensual challenge than the famously scandalous moment with the nymph's scarf. The ROH orchestra underpins this general inertia with a subtle rendering of Debussy's score that barely rises above a murmur.

To finish, the company launches into that other dance monument to modernism - Bronislava Nijinska's 1923 setting of Stravinsky's Les Noces, a work which views the public and private rituals of a Russian peasant wedding through the eyes of post-revolution people power. On a personal level this a joyless affair - the bride trussed for marriage like a goose for the oven, the groom bowed by the weight of social expectation. It's the ensemble that rules - and here the Royal Ballet is in its element - carving out their stooped and stomping line dances with troglodyte ferocity, responding to Stravinsky's airless rhythms with a unity that's truly terrifying. This is essential viewing and essential listening.

jenny.gilbert@independent.co.uk

ROH, London WC2 (020 7304 4000), in rep to 25 May

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