Diaghilev revisited

The Diaghilev Legacy Royal Ballet | Royal Opera House, London
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The Independent Culture

There are three good reasons why the Royal Ballet's new programme celebrates Serge Diaghilev. First, this Russian polymath ran the most successful private ballet company in all history, commissioned much of the greatest music of his time, and made people accept ballet as a serious art. Next, within 20 years he found and developed five great choreographers: more than any other company managed in the whole 20th century. Above all, without the inspiration and knowledge Ninette de Valois gained from him, the Royal Ballet she founded would have been very different - had it existed at all.

There are three good reasons why the Royal Ballet's new programme celebrates Serge Diaghilev. First, this Russian polymath ran the most successful private ballet company in all history, commissioned much of the greatest music of his time, and made people accept ballet as a serious art. Next, within 20 years he found and developed five great choreographers: more than any other company managed in the whole 20th century. Above all, without the inspiration and knowledge Ninette de Valois gained from him, the Royal Ballet she founded would have been very different - had it existed at all.

This four-part programme includes only two out of more than a dozen Diaghilev creations previously in the RB repertoire. They neatly illustrate how quickly he transformed expectations. The Firebird, made by Michel Fokine for Diaghilev's second season, in 1910, seemed revolutionary at the time, largely because of Stravinsky's music, but in retrospect clearly relates to the 19th-century format it was trying to modernise. With its romantic plot based on Russian legends, its lucid storytelling, and Gontcharova's sumptuous designs, it makes a great finale. It also contained, in Saturday's differently cast matinee and evening shows, the day's two best performances: Miyako Yoshida a light, elegant firebird, Leanne Benjamin fiercely dramatic in the same role.

By 1924, only 14 years later, Les Biches was a completely modern ballet. Bronislava Nijinska's sly, allusive choreography displays, in eight numbers, a whole cynical world of human nature. The Twenties Riviera setting could be any haunt of today's idle rich; their silliness, search for amusement and ambivalent sexuality are timeless. Poulenc's jazzily rakish score perfectly supports the action. Too bad that the revival lacks detail and nuance; only Zenaida Yanovsky as the hostess (matinee) and Mara Galeazzi (evening) as the ambiguous creature in blue had much bite, but even sloppily danced this ballet is more worthwhile than most recent creations.

The catalyst between Firebird and Biches was the ballets of Nijinska's brother, Vaslav Nijinsky. The Royal Ballet has never tackled any of them before; now it has two. His first ballet, L'Apres-midi d'un faune, shocked Paris in 1912 with its bestial creature voyeuristically watching a nymph undress to bathe, then masturbating on the scarf she dropped. Inspired by Debussy's sensuous score, the action is terse and strange.

But because it was the only remembered choreography of the legendary dancer, it survived in intermittent word-of-mouth revivals. Now two scholars, Ann Hutchinson Guest and Claudia Jeschke, have deciphered Nijinsky's cryptic notation and produced a starker, even stranger version. Unfortunately there is no central performance to match the sinuous drama and authority of Nureyev, Christopher Bruce, Charles Jude and others in the old versions. Irek Mukhamedov now proves altogether too dry; Carlos Acosta comes nearer, but looked puzzled by what he was asked to do.

When Nijinsky created Jeux the following year, his purpose was altogether more ambitious: to make a ballet set in the present, dealing with sport and sex. But he had to complete it too hurriedly for the opening of the Champs-Elysees Theatre, while exhausted from working on the Rite of Spring. It showed three people flirting in a garden, failed to please in either Paris or London, and was withdrawn after a handful of performances.

Two balletic archaeologists, Millicent Hodson and Kenneth Archer, have tried to reconstruct it from written accounts and illustrations. The original ballet probably looked something like this, but I guess with much sharper detail. Jerkily fragmentary in structure and movement, it must have relied heavily on the unique gifts of its first performers, who included the great Tamara Karsavina besides Nijinsky's own powerful presence. Even then it flopped.

If we could see these works exactly as they were, we might appreciate them better than the audiences of 1913. But to expect today's very different dancers to pull it off, in an approximation of Nijinsky's intentions, is unfair, and they don't.

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