Three years after the centenary of the Ballets Russes, the English National Ballet are staging another season inspired by the legendary dance troupe.
It’s risky to show two versions of the same dance in its first programme, especially if one is as iconic as Vaslav Nijinsky’s L’Après-Midi d’un Faune. But David Dawson’s Faun(e) keeps the essence of the original while looking sufficiently fresh. The notion of sexual awakening is here translated to two men (Jan Casier and Raphaël Coumes-Marquet), with just a subtle hint of homoeroticism penetrating their movement: a soft caress, a longing glance. But it’s just as easy to view the piece, as in the original, as a story of loneliness, with its desolate set making it feel as if the men were caught mid-rehearsal. And Debussy’s beautiful composition captures that feeling more powerfully on just two pianos than a full orchestra.
The Nijinsky piece paled in comparison to Dawson’s re-working. Dmitri Gruzdyev’s faun, in a rather straight-laced performance, has lost the mystery that makes the character so intriguing, his interpretation teetering a little too close to comedy. It didn’t feel like Gruzdyev’s heart was in it. Nijinsky’s original portrayal was far from comic and the imagery of the piece was considered so suggestive that it caused a stir when it was first shown on stage. This reworking of the piece made it near-impossible to imagine how that might have happened.
The Ballet Russes’ director, Sergei Diaghilev, savoured controversy and this ENB mixed programme ends with The Rite of Spring, a dance that caused a riot at its Paris premiere almost a hundred years ago. The pulse of piece remains Stravinsky’s score, which still sounds radical and striking now. The Kenneth MacMillan version, despite swapping the pagan setting for something more tribal (with sheer black costumes designed by Kinder Aggugini), stays true to the spirit of the original. The second half, in which the movements become increasingly frantic, is mesmerising and genuinely terrifying.
MacMillan’s choreography, with its shuffling steps, also feels extremely modern. A sense of claustrophobia is created, like a mob descending on its victim. The ENB corps is absolutely superb, performing with an urgent menace, dizzying in both its speed and unity. Yet Erina Takahashi as The Chosen One, is almost too clean and too balletic: she never completely loses herself in the choreography and there is little sense of her as someone about to be sacrificed.
The evening belongs to George Williamson’s adaptation of Firebird, here receiving its world premiere. Williamson has maintained the collaborative spirit of the Ballet Russes, with the costumes designed by David Bamber – who has worked with fashion houses including Gucci and Christian Dior – possibly the most exquisite I’ve seen in a long time. Arguably, these two have taken the role of the Firebird even further than Fokine’s 1910 original; this Firebird wears a metallic, psychedelic skin-tight catsuit and a feathered headpiece. She’s androgynous, alluring, appealing without being overtly sexual: a Firebird for modern times. The other costumes, meanwhile, contained a vintage aesthetic that subtly referenced the era of the original, as in the neckline of the red dress worn by Adela Ramírez and the back-seamed stockings of the muses.
The mob behaviour that featured in The Rite of Spring is also evident in Williamson’s piece. The original theme of the bird as both blessing and curse is turned into a comment on the cult of celebrity. Everyone wants a piece of the Firebird, played with breathtaking delicacy by Ksenia Ovsyanick. She’s strong yet vulnerable, her bird-like arm movements far from the prettiness and elegance of Swan Lake.
Ramírez cruelly plucks the feathers off the Firebird in order to decorate herself; we also witness the greed of the peacock (Francisco Bosch) as he takes his own memento and the army captain (Junor Souza) seeking to prove his superiority and power. Souza almost steals the show with his fast and ferocious solo, making Bosch’s jumps seem lethargic in comparison. Not all the performances were as tight: Laurretta Summerscales pranced around a little too melodramatically, while the three muses were sometimes messy in their steps.
This is Williamson’s first commission for the Coliseum main stage, having only graduated from the English National Ballet School in 2010. There is a new crop of young British choreographers making interesting work in classical ballet, and it’s pleasing to see Williamson claiming some of that spotlight from the ENB’s larger counterpart in Covent Garden. As an adaptor of classic ballet, his talent is there for all to see, and I’ll await his first original production with anticipation.