Opening night of this Saisons Russes tour kicked off in frenzied, rather ramshackle form: an unfortunate injury demanded a last-minute substitution of Patrick de Bana’s much-anticipated Cléopâtre – Ida Rubinstein, and technical difficulties saw company director and darling of the Bolshoi Andris Liepa himself dragged on stage to fill some time while behind-the-scenes adjustments were made. Luckily, the ballets that eventually followed – all works by the prodigious Michel Fokine – bore little resemblance to the preceding clumsiness and proved well worth the wait.
The adjusted programme made way for Le Spectre de la Rose, a captivating one-act pas de deux featuring People’s Artist of Russia Yulia Makhalina and English sensation Xander Parish. Inspired by a Gautier poem, the piece depicts a slumbering debutant’s dream of dancing with the very rose she was holding when she drifted off. Makhalina gave a satisfyingly lush, courtly performance, offering sumptuous port de bras and gentle nods of the head, while Parish’s clean lines and delicate leaps exuded a beautiful reconciliation of composure and strength. The resultant atmosphere was one of slight restraint, favouring whimsy over passion and fragility over vigour. The rose’s dramatic exit – a grand jete out the young girl’s window – solidified the lingering impression of buoyancy.
The company’s rousing rendition of The Firebird, a yarn rooted in Russian folklore, shattered the fanciful air established by the preceding piece and replaced it with something far more flashy. Alexandra Timofeeva proved sprightly and feisty as the titular bird, whose capture by the gallant Prince Ivan (Mikhail Lobukhin) spurs chaos in Kashchei the Immortal’s magical realm. Meanwhile the concomitant bevy of magical beasties – sicced on Ivan as a result of his declaration of love for one of the kingdom’s ethereal princesses – appeared deft and delightfully spooky, cartoonish though they were with their electric costumes and wild pirouettes. In fact, an overarching pantomime quality blatantly permeates the piece, embodied most flagrantly by the flaxen-haired, broad-shouldered prince’s exaggerated shrugs and the slinky skeleton king’s Disneyfied crouch. Still, the effect is not wholly distasteful, and the frenetic climax in which the Firebird bewitches the enemies into a feverish, debilitating dance is nothing if not mesmerising. The accompanying Stravinsky score – considered his breakout – is the perfect degree of tantalising, flitting deftly between eerie piano notes and unassuming plucks of the harp.
Scheherazade, the programme’s finale, is a feast of dazzling colours and raw sensuality. The provocative libretto, derived from The Arabian Nights, charts the tale of Zobeide, a sultan’s wife who is punished for a secret liaison with a slave. Makhalina impressed once again as a principal, this time commanding a sinuous, formidable charisma opposite Parish’s erotic Golden Slave, while the rest of the harem matched their performance in decadence if not in skill. Though the grotesque eunuch’s spectacularly gauche reprisal of the pantomime effect proved somewhat off-putting, Parish’s masterful spell of grand fouettes towards the end duly compensated for the distraction.