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In the Spirit of Diaghilev

by David Mead

October 14, 2009 -- Sadler's Wells Theatre, London

Many of the events marking the centenary of the founding of the Ballets Russes have focused on recreating or reworking ballets of the period. Sadler’s Wells Artistic Director Alistair Spalding decided rather to pose himself the question, “If Diaghilev were alive and well in London today, which artists would he commission and what kind of collaborations would he encourage?”

In answer, he gave four of the theatre’s associate choreographers the challenge to make a piece that has some connection with the Ballets Russes period, but that have at the core the spirit of collaboration that Diaghilev encouraged, whether with designers, dancers or musicians. He said he wanted to be surprised, and hoped that the choreographers, Wayne McGregor, Russell Maliphant, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Javier De Frutos, would make work they would not have otherwise made.

The evening opened with McGregor’s “Dyad 1909”. Actually, thanks to a technical hitch about seven minutes into the piece, it opened twice. It’s a piece for seven dancers that takes its inspiration from the rapid evolution of the early 20th century, and in particular Ernest Shackleton’s 1909 expedition to Antarctica. It features projections of machines onto screens spaced around the stage, and an original score by Icelandic composer Ólafur Arnalds that combines piano, strings and electronics, and that gives an appropriate impression of emptiness.

The overt Shackleton references come mostly right at the beginning. Other than that, much of the work could be about almost anything. Choreographically it opens and closes with the same sensitive duet, while another beautiful pairing in the middle of the piece matches perfectly a string quartet section of the score. The whole work is full of the fluid, supple backs, hyperextensions and amazingly mobile arms characteristic of McGregor’s choreography. There are also plenty of references to classical ballet, and in many ways it is reminiscent of “Infra”, his 2008 piece for The Royal Ballet. Despite the occasional overpowering nature of the projections it was great to watch, and certainly communicated the sense of whiteness and space.

Second up was Russell Maliphant’s “AfterLight”, a solo danced by Daniel Proietto, and inspired by an abstract figurative sketch by Nijinsky. Dancing to Satie’s “Gnossiennes,” Proietto was sublime as he flowed, circled and twisted in harmony with the patterns of light and shadow on stage. It really did seem as if Proietto was the sketch come to life. Even sitting close up you could not hear a sound even when he jumped or went to the floor. It was such a simple idea, yet stunningly realised, and not only the most memorable work on the programme, but that which most realised the spirit of Diaghilev.

The work with the most obvious link to the Ballets Russes was Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s reworking of “L’Après-midi d’un faune”, danced to Débussy’s well-known score with two additions by Nitin Sawhney. “Faun” as Cherkaoui more simply calls it, is a duet in which the faun, James O’Hara, meets his nymph, Daisy Phillips, in the forest. Platinum-blonde O’Hara’s movement had a superb animalistic quality, both sensual and athletic, particularly in the early minutes as he emerged from the shadows. When Phillips appears, the couple slowly explore each other. It was beautiful to watch, even if some of the more yoga influenced dance when the two bodies came together as one multi-limbed being seemed a little contrived.

And so to Javier De Frutos’ “Eternal Damnation to Sancho and Sanchez”. Apparently it is a cautionary tale inspired by Cocteau’s scenarios and designs for the Ballets Russes. Well, the design link was obvious, but the rest was tenuous to say the least. Given that De Frutos has something of a reputation for being deliberately controversial and provocative, we should have known what to expect.

The work involves a deformed pope, three pregnant muses, a far from innocent altar boy and a priest who also doubles as Apollo. The pope has forced sex with at least three of the others, the ‘f’ word is used liberally and there is lots of violence, all very graphically presented. I suppose we should be thankful there is no nudity. The boos mixed with the applause, and it has to be said, rather muted applause, suggest he succeeded in offending many in the audience. Some even walked out during the piece. Of course, some Ballets Russes works had the same effect. But that was largely due to the fact they were new, shocking and unexpected in that time and place. Today this sort of thing can be seen anywhere, including on stage, if you care to look for it. The Ballets Russes did not deliberately and crudely offend. De Frutos’ piece was not even humourous. And perhaps worst of all, it was very quickly apparent that he had absolutely nothing else to say, and the whole thing became extremely boring.

So, was the evening “In the Spirit of Diaghilev”? Well, there was certainly a spirit of collaboration, but choreographers work with musicians and designers as a matter of course these days. I saw little in the way of new approaches, in terms of design, staging or choreography. Would Spalding have got his wish and been surprised? I’m not sure. I certainly was not. Maybe I was expecting too much, but the although all the works linked with Diaghilev and/or the period in question, and some of the choreographers made unusual choices, such as Maliphant working with an existing classical score, they looked and felt pretty much like what I would have expected. Do not misunderstand me; apart from the De Frutos effort they were enjoyable and worth seeing, but you couldn’t help feeling they could have been done at any time, on any programme.

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