In the Spirit of Diaghilev, Sadler's Wells, London

A centenary homage to Diaghilev's brilliance offers up both rare delight and common malice
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The Independent Culture

The job of theatrical impresario has always been heart-attack territory. All those egos to stroke, all those temperaments to balance, and will the show come together on time? Take another Valium and pray.

Serge Diaghilev famously had what it takes – commercial nous, creative daring, nerves of steel – and the result was two decades-worth of popular hits with his Ballets Russes, and a boost to the careers of Matisse, Stravinsky, Apollinaire and Cocteau, among many celebrated others.

One hundred years after that first explosive season, Sadler's Wells is testing the strength of its own commissioning arm. Rather than revisit those groundbreaking 1909 ballets, it asked four leading choreographers to channel the period's energies in their own way, collaborating with the art world's movers and shakers of 2009.

Wayne McGregor spotted that 1909 was also the year when Ernest Shackleton made it to the South Pole, and his contribution featured a tent, howling winds and a stiff-limbed man in a furry suit. Confusingly, Dyad 1909 (dyad being a metaphysical term for a pairing) also included references to the ballet Les Sylphides. But apart from the fact that McGregor shared out his choreography between a silvery-limbed chorus and a tenderly attentive couple, the point was obscurely made.

The artists Jane and Louise Wilson provided counter-images, suggesting the rapid technological advances of the period, projected on geometric blocks like icebergs. Some of these images were so absorbing, though, that you ceased to look at the dance.

By contrast, Russell Maliphant's AfterLight went for the minimalist option: a single dancer (Daniel Proietto), only partially illuminated, twirling on the spot and tracing whorls of invisible lines with exquisite ballet arms.

The spirit of Diaghilev's star attraction, Nijinsky, whom Proietto was dressed to resemble in his skull-hugging bandana, felt thrillingly close. (The piece was also a perfect visual response to Erik Satie's spare, glimmering Gnossiennes for solo piano. A shame we got a record and not the live deal).

Of all the four choreographers it was the Belgian Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui who proved most attentive to his brief. His Faun not only offered a fresh take on one of Diaghilev's greatest feats of alchemy, but attempted to take it musically one step further, bringing in Nitin Sawhney to add new taped sections to Debussy's intoxicating score (played live).

The idea, it seems, was to detach the piece from its Western cultural moorings and make it universal, summoning Krishna alongside Pan. And yes, Sawnhey's cardamom-scented additions are delicious.

But given that Debussy had already unhinged music from 400 years of Western harmony, superfluous. Cherkaoui's choreography was the thing, here. Tumbling, boneless, vulnerable as a new-born calf, Play-Doh-bodied James O'Hara captured the innocence you can believe might have characterised the first human on earth. His nymph (Daisy Phillips) wasn't quite his match, encumbered by a costume by Hussein Chalayan that gave her the form of a knotty tree. But her approach to O'Hara had all the freshness of Miranda's "brave new world". A gleaming little wonder of a work which should be seen again.

That's not a request likely to be troubling Javier de Frutos, whose Eternal Damnation to Sancho and Sanchez was calculated to upset as many people as possible, but most pointedly the individuals (one of them surnamed Sanchez) with whom he so viciously fell out last year that he was relieved of the directorship of Phoenix Dance Company. Sadler's Wells was presumably unaware of the personal spite unleashed in this project.

What it did know was that the piece was bound to cause a stir. A hunchbacked pope who sexually abuses his congregation as they chant Hail Marys? Grotesque physical violence, verbal violence, the garrotting of a heavily pregnant woman? And all to a visual backdrop of homoerotic porn and an aural backdrop of the glittering orchestral Vesuvius that is Ravel's La Valse.

Walkouts and booing were guaranteed. The cheers were more disturbing. Diaghilev had a nose for a scandal, but he was a good deal more subtle about it.

'In the Spirit of Diaghilev' will be broadcast on BBC4 in December

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