To say that Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, founded in 1909, has cast a long shadow over ballet ever since would be true, but misleading. While it’s true the company was revolutionary in so many ways, its inventiveness has only pushed subsequent choreographers onto ever greater heights. This is made clear in the English National Ballet’s second Beyond Ballets Russes programme, which, like the first, includes pieces choreographed both before and after Diaghilev’s death in 1929.
It begins with George Balanchine’s Apollo of 1928, which today is his oldest extant ballet, and remains one of the greatest works of the twentieth century. Although the piece is well known, in Nanette Glushak’s staging it feels remarkably fresh, and though it may describe the birth of the god Apollo and his interaction with three muses, the characters, emotions and interactions are really very human.
At the centre of this performance lies Zdenek Konvalina’s portrayal of Apollo, his straightness, strength, buoyancy and balance all outstanding. Especially striking is the way in which he can portray the dual emotions of strength and uncertainty, his limbs outstretched as if pushing forward the frontiers of space and knowledge one moment, and his whole body hunched up defensively the next.
Particularly prevalent is the dry humour underlying Balanchine’s innovations. When Begoña Cao’s Calliope, the muse of poetry, gestures the oration of verses by throwing her hands away from her mouth the movement is almost ugly, and yet its inventiveness overcomes this. Similarly, it is impossible not to admire Balanchine’s courage in choreographing an entire routine where the muse Polyhymnias (Anaïs Chalendard) must dance with one finger pressed against her mouth to signify mime.
Daria Klimentová’s performance also stands out as Terpsichores. Through her strength of personality and gesture, she marks herself out as Apollo’s favourite from the very moment that the trio of muses grace the stage. As Klimentová performs the iconic move whereby she ‘swims’ though the air as her curved torso rests on Konvalina’s back and neck, her grace and elegance contrast starkly with his anxiety, the burden of love clearly resting heavily on his shoulders. In this sense, Apollo has something in common with the piece that follows, Jeux. This was originally created by Nijinsky in 1913 but has been lost since, and the piece now enjoying its world premiere is choreographed by the ENB’s artistic director Wayne Eagling, itself developed from a segment devised by Kenneth MacMillan in 1978.
Superficially, the piece describes a tennis match, but once again it is ridden with sexual tensions. Although it involves three couples, the six dancers do not enjoy equal stage time. The majority of the piece is occupied by one man and two women who push and pull, and twist and turn, each other about. The women, haughty and nonchalant, seem to be in control, while the man appears only to be clinging to some vestige of love. The most remarkable element is the way in which elegant and more awkward poses intermingle, and some moves seem to be simultaneously elegant and awkward. Eagling’s new creation is a triumph.
Next, Vadim Muntagirov tackles the solo work, Le Train bleu, choreographed by Bronislava Nijinska. It is a short, snappy piece in which acrobatic and gymnastic moves are carried off with the best of balletic technique, and the jovial prance with which Muntagirov follows his bow simply caps it all. The evening’s final piece is Suite en Blanc, choreographed by Serge Lifar in 1943. When the ENB performed it this time last year it was for the first time in 35 years. This splendid eight movement ballet proves an excellent forum to show off the talents of several dancers, and Nancy Osbaldeston in the pas de cinq, Erina Takahashi in the pas de deux and flute, and Yonah Acosta, winner of the Emerging Dancer Award 2012, in the mazurka, give it their all.
Read the Exeunt review of Beyond Ballets Russes Programme 1.