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Sergey Diaghilev circa 1916. From the Dance Collection, NY Public Library / Astor, Lenox & Tilden Foundations ©. Source: Britannica.com

Sergey Diaghilev circa 1916. From the Dance Collection, NY Public Library / Astor, Lenox & Tilden Foundations ©. Source: Britannica.com

Diaghilev was a man ahead of his time, a visionary capable of bringing together the most talented artists of his generation and nurturing them into creating new collaborative works of art. Had it not been for his vision, the West might never have known of Nijinsky, Stravinsky or Balanchine. The face of dance would have been very different today without his Ballets Russes.

As ballet companies and theatres around the world pay well deserved homage, in various different shapes and forms, to one hundred years of Ballet Russes, Sadler’s Wells decided to focus theirs on Diaghilev’s spirit of collaborative work. Thus, Artistic Director Alistair Spalding commissioned four brand new pieces inspired by or connected in some way to the Ballets Russes at their most influential. Spalding chose four associated artists of Sadler’s Wells – Wayne McGregor (who is also the Royal Ballet’s resident choreographer) Russell Maliphant, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Javier De Frutos – to respond in a variety of ways, collaborating with various designers, dancers and musicians while staying true to their own dance language.

The evening’s opener was McGregor’s Dyad 1909, a ballet for seven dancers to an original score by Ólafur Arnalds. Inspired by the scientific, social and technological developments of Diaghilev’s time, most notably Ernest Shackleton‘s expedition to reach the magnetic South Pole, McGregor developed his choreography with the aid of multi-screen video installations depicting machines (by Jane & Louise Wilson), brilliant lighting which suggested the Antartic (by Lucy Carter) and an almost-classical score which fused strings and piano with industrial and electronic sounds, all of these elements nodding to his  backstory.

Dance-wise this was standard McGregor fare. Hyperextended bodies, mobile arms (which at times seemed to mime the operation of machines) and supple contorting backs. More than once I was reminded of last year’s Infra, particularly as the dancers entered and exited to similar stage cues, wearing similar costumes. There were some beautiful, memorable sequences including a pas de deux to the sound of Arnalds’ gorgeous string quartet where McGregor applied classical lines (a cabriolé here, a pirouette there and some rounded soft arms among the lifts) and an ensemble of five dancers moving in unison through a diagonal in a faster-than-light pace. It is not his best piece but it is still one that reminds us how McGregor is a master of controlling the visual impressions he leaves on the audience. His talent is evident but one wishes he would drop his signature off-centered hip and brought in new elements into the mix more often.

Nijinskys Dancer circa 1917/18. Copyright: Stiftung John Neumeier - Dance Collection © Source: ArtsDesk

Nijinsky's 'Dancer' circa 1917/18. Copyright: Stiftung John Neumeier - Dance Collection © Source: ArtsDesk

Next was Russell Maliphant’s AfterLight, as inspired by a Nijinsky drawing of a dancer (see left). Set to Erik Satie‘s Gnossiennes, the choreography builds  on the interplay between light and dancer Daniel Proietto. He moves in circles creating  forms that fuse with the patterns of light and shadow reflected on the floor. Lighting designer Michael Hull’s  brilliant work emphasizes the flowing movement which starts from the dancers’ extremities and propagates to swirls of light surrounding him, in a sea of clouds. This visually stunning live realisation of Nijinsky’s sketch was the most applauded and (at least in my opinion) the most memorable choreography of the evening.

Cherkaoui’s Faun was probably the piece most directly connected to the Ballets Russes and to Nijinsky’s own scandalous version. James O’Hara’s Faun  looked  as if he had been teleported from an Animal Planet documentary: platinum blonde hair, thin limbs, an almost animal quality to his persona. The faun emerges from the shadows morphing from shape to shape, at times lingering in yoga-like poses, at times swiftly moving from one into the next. The stage finally illuminates to reveal the Nymph (Daisy Phillips) in an ethereal forest, the two beings meet and through Cherkaoui’s choreography we see them evolve from two separate bodies into a single one. For all its sensuality and exuberance, there were also moments of sheer athleticism (no doubt inspired by Nijinsky’s legendary skills) and with Nitin Sawhney’s additional music complementing Debussy‘s original score, we see beautiful intimate scenes between those two mythical creatures.

The evening closer  – Javier De Frutos’ Eternal Damnation to Sancho and Sanchez – was described in the programme as a “satirical ballet inspired by scenarios of Jean Cocteau“. It involved a deformed Pope, three pregnant muses, an Apollo/priest figure and plenty of explicit sexual images to a litany of the Holy Mary’s last verse (in Spanish). Provocation and controversy were no doubt De Frutos’ biggest drivers (read Ismene Brown’s recent interview with him), but to me his choice of topic seemed too obvious, too easy. No prizes for guessing that graphic images of a Pope having sexual relations with at least three characters under a neon caption which reads “Amuse me!” will provoke the audience. It was a dumbed down way to create an anticlimactic finale and I left wishing that De Frutos would have really amused me instead. Even though Diaghilev had a thing for “le succès de scandale”, he always knew the value of a good ending, and as de Frutos recently noted to Ismene Brown (see above link), one would have the “scandalous” Rite of Spring but this was followed by Balanchine’s beautiful Apollo and the evening would end on a high. Perhaps this piece of Diaghilev wisdom should have been taken into account when planning the order of the programme.

In the Spirit of Diaghilev runs at Sadler’s Wells until the 17th of October. For information and bookings, visit Sadler’s Wells website.

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