Petrushka / Chopiniana / Polovtsian Dances
Scheherazade / Le Coq d’Or Act III / Polovtsian Dances
11 & 13 July
Both of these stellar evenings of ballet ended with the same remarkable buzz. A flourish made all the more notable since the Polovtsian Dances were created for the second act of Borodin’s opera Prince Igor, over 120 years ago. The melodies, the gigantic sound and exhilarating dancing combine to launch a rip-roaring finale quite unlike any ballet I’ve ever seen; but a uniqueness that is entirely appropriate to a fragment of opera-ballet about the Polovtsi, a remote, barbaric and long-extinct tribe.
Borodin’s luscious music is so melodic that his opera was plundered to create the score for the Broadway musical Kismet (filmed by MGM, in 1955). The haunting theme heard early in this excerpt, known as the Dance of the Polovtsian Maidens, became the memorable love duet, Stranger in Paradise. Borodin died before Prince Igor was performed but I wonder if he could ever have imagined that his song for a chorus of maidens would become one of the most popular tunes in the world in the middle of the next century, and usually sung by men (it was a worldwide No 1 hit for Tony Bennett in 1955). But, the really staggering musical effect in the Polovtsian Dances is reserved for the late entry of the male chorus, arranged in the two boxes stacked to the left side of the Coliseum stage, the women – who had already been singing for some time – facing them in the opposite boxes.
When these men let rip in their slaves’ chorus (Fly Away on the Wings of the Wind) the effect is spine-tingling and amazing (even when expected). Amongst the ranks of the male chorus, I was surprised to see Alexander Tsilinko (a superb bass who had starred in the role of Tsar Dodon in Le Coq d’Or on the opening night) standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the guys in the chorus. It is like Natalia Osipova suddenly appearing in the corps de ballet! But teamwork and togetherness seems to typify this energetic company from the Natalia Sats theatre. Mention must also be made of Elena Chesnokova who doesn’t merit an entry in the programme but sang the solo for the Polovtsian woman with great passion on both evenings.
The orchestra conducted by Alevtina Ioffe – what a refreshing and wonderful thing to see a talented woman conductor as musical director in a major Russian theatre – was equally superb and the impressive sound of musicians and singers alike was well-matched by the symmetry and astounding energy of the dancers. This Saisons Russes enterprise brought over 200 people to London and it seemed that almost all of them were pounding the stage in rhythmic unison, gathering momentum with the tidal surge of the chorus: leaping, firing imaginary arrows from real bows and then using them to beat the floor.
Natalia Savelieva was a melting, sorrowful captive woman (what a wonderful Nikiya she must be) and Pavel Okunev was like a human firework in Nijinsky’s famous role as the Polovtsian warrior, criss-crossing the stage in an explosion of leaps and somersaults (revealing some serious hip hop training, a hunch that I discovered later to be correct). This brief and rousing extract of an opera – with its stirring choreography by Mikhail Fokine and colourful designs by Anna Nezhnaya, based on the original sketches of Nicholas Roerich – was a popular staple for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes and – on the basis of these spectacular re-enactments – one can easily see why.
The first of these two evenings opened with two other ballets from Fokine and the Ballets Russes that have survived and proliferated over the past century although I confess to being slightly bored with both. Chopiniana – which we know in the west as Les Sylphides – is a pretty white ballet, set in a moonlit woodland glade where a single man (sometimes identified as a “poet”) encounters a group of sylphs. It is more about elegant pictures on the stage than showy, complicated dancing but it never seems to be danced with quite the same soul by any company other than the Russians and, here, Alexandra Timofeyeva (a guest who is the prima ballerina of Moscow’s Kremlin Ballet) was an especially delightful soloist in the opening waltz and the mazurka.
Petrushka is a ballet of its era that is no longer appropriate narratively. It remains of interest mainly for Stravinsky’s music (a precursor to the Rite of Spring) and the fairground spectacle of Alexandre Benois’ designs (again revived by Nezhnaya). Historically, we see a contemporary interpretation of St Petersburg’s Butter Week fair (traditionally in the week preceding Lent) within which the eternal love triangle of three puppets plays out. This performance benefitted by a superb interpretation of the tragic Petrushka marionette by Okunev, showing his suffering through cruelty, ignominy, rejection and death. The pathos of Okunev’s performance was matched by an uncanny ability to make us believe that he had replaced flesh and blood and quite literally become “a straw man”.
The gala programme opened with a sumptuous, exotic reading of Scheherazadewith the luscious melodies of Rimsky-Korsakov fitting into the same magical eastern flavour as Borodin. Another guest ballerina – the Mariinsky’s Yulia Makhalina – provided a sultry, haughty Zobeide and Artem Yachmennikov was a rousing Golden Slave. Oleg Fomin exchanged the doddery, gingery sloth of Tsar Dodon in Le Coq d’Or for the imposing cruelty of the cuckolded Sultan Shahriyar. Like all of the Saisons Russes re-enactments of the Ballets Russes repertoire the designs (this time, Nezhnaya and Anatoly Nezhniy based on Leon Bakst’s original sketches) and the music are the bedrock for Fokine’s chorography (here revised by the producer-director Andris Liepa). One visual and aural feast was quickly followed by another in an extract (Act III) of Rimsky-Korsakov’s raucously colourful Le Coq d’Or, which I reviewed in full at the beginning of this glorious week.
These Russian Seasons are becoming a much-loved part of the London Summer, bringing the original soul of Russian artistic creativity back into active life. They would not be quite the same without the additional ornament of Liepa’s own narration of the programme, appearing onstage before each item (in his own unique sartorial style, sporting a different scarf and always with a waistcoat, appearing rather like a human Rupert the Bear). He becomes a speaking programme note, explaining something about each work, often with gentle humour thrown in; and always exiting stage right with a the flourish of a man used to performing. As a former star of the Bolshoi Ballet (the son of Maris, and the brother of Ilze who was present at the Sunday Gala), Liepa already has a major entry of his own in the history of ballet. He is now on a mission to show new generations the beautiful and rich treasure trove of Russian art and creativity from the early 20th century and to explain the vital legacy of Diaghilev and his Russian Seasons. There are now 12 productions from the Ballets Russes in Liepa’s collection and his next project is to restore Narcissus. I can’t wait!
Presented by Maris Liepa Foundation & the Natalia Sats Moscow State Theatre for Young Audience
18th July, 2014