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Flash Review, 7-16: Spectres
The Ballets Russians are coming back, and the English are bringing them

By Josephine Leask
Copyright 2009 Josephine Leask

LONDON -- The English National Ballet was the guest at Sadler's Wells Theatre for its week-long season celebrating the centennial of the Ballets Russes. The night I attended, June 17, three signature works by Michel Fokine were performed alongside a new interpretation of Nijinsky's "L'apres-midi d'un faune" entitled "Faun(e)," by David Dawson, and Kenneth MacMillan's (1962) version of Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring."

The dancers of ENB, who were fresh, eager and utterly competent were joined by two formidable guest artists from Australian Ballet, another company which grew out of the legacy of the Ballets Russes: Gina Brescianini danced the Young Girl in Fokine's "Le Spectre de la Rose" while Tzu-Chao Chou was the Spirit of the Rose. Brescianini is a suitably soporific young debutante who, on returning from a ball, staggers dizzily around her room before collapsing into her chair, fatigued by her exhilarating evening and the intense heat of the summer's night. While not a demanding work technically, the essence of this piece is in the mixed sentiments of the young woman and how she portrays these in her languorous, dreamy condition. Brescianini is delirious with happiness but also filled with longing for something more -- with expectations not met -- as she drowsily reflects on her adventures, breathing in the heady perfume of the rose to transport her back in time. As she falls into a light sleep, Chou springs through the window, the embodiment of a thin, delicate rose in his petal-encrusted costume, but with technical prowess as sharp as thorns. He is like an elf, flitting across the room, quick and light, a smile flickering on his lips. As he rouses her in her sleep, enticing her to trance-dance, any latent sexual connotation is dispersed by his being incredibly androgynous. Too 'other-worldly' and ethereal to be properly male, he avoids direct contact with her, instead celebrating his own physicality and mischievously enjoying the magic he weaves around her. As he exits with a final triumphant jete through the window into the night, he leaves us with an aura of vivid pink colors and swirls of movement -- a puff of eau de toilette rather than a seductive perfume.

Watching Fokine's short ballet "Les Sylphides" unfold is like witnessing a painter working on a canvas, as colors, mood and shape emerge. While Agnes Oaks as Prelude and Thomas Edur as the Poet were picture-perfect in Fokine's homage to the Romantic ballet, it was the corps de ballet that enraptured me. Their continuously committed presence provided the nuances, textures and mood of the work: the white reflection from their floaty dresses seen en masse, their soothing swaying arms and frequently executed serene frozen poses, their calm assembling and re-assembling. They frame the soloists and keep the ballet moving with gentle fluidity as nothing much really happens in this bucolic setting conveyed by Chopin's comforting score and Geoffrey Guy's muted green sets (after Carot). The soloists are rather bland except for Crystal Costa, who is a dynamic and engaging force, but possibly brings too much vitality to this fantastically laid-back ballet.

Many fashionistas had come to the theater to see Karl Lagerfeld's opulent tutu, designed (under the Chanel label) for Elena Glurdjidze in "The Dying Swan," reminding us of Coco Chanel's contribution to the Ballets Russes. This short, tragically beautiful solo always used to make me cry, but here it was just too much about making a fashion statement and fell short of conveying any more in-depth pathos. While Glurdjidze attempted to portray the gut-wrenching struggle of the swan through bewilderingly impressive manipulation of her arms and neck, her accurate rendition lacked soul, subdued as it was by the glitzy grandeur of the tutu. The solo displayed the over- accessorized tutu exquisitely rather than conveying a bird's emotional fight for its life or its final delicate death.

The most disappointing work for me was Dawson's "Faun(e)," his personal 'contemporary' response to Nijinsky's ballet and Debussy's famous music for two pianos. While the two dancers, company member Esteban Berlanga and guest artist Raphael Coumes-Marquet, from Dresden's SemperOper Ballet, were startlingly poetic performers, I again felt that the choreography was more about showing them off as virtuosos rather than capturing the mood that was so distinctive in the original version. Two pianos, played by Kevin Darvas and Chris Swithinbank, dominated the stark, stripped back stage, behind which fragments of sets and other stage debris lay piled up against the back wall, helping to create the bare visual setting that we see in so many post-modern dances. Into this 'studio' setting, the two dancers, dressed in olive green flowing skirts and loose tops, leapt and plunged to the music, one 'leading,' the other 'following.' Dawson's choreography physically responds to the music in this abstract narrative ballet, but it's superficial and lacks emotion. The relationship between the two men is similar to that of a teacher and a student, but it is never explored. While there is a little curious tension between them and something sexually ambiguous, they remain detached and ultimately cold to each other, both too arrogant and narcissistic. Overall "Faun(e)" is banal and pretentious, lacking the spirit and the bold shock of Nijinsky's masterpiece.

Finishing the evening, MacMillan's bizarre, scary "Rite of Spring" was riveting in all its components: costume, movement, staging and music. Hoards of dancers, wearing unitards stained with earthy colors and sporting clay-encrusted wigs, all designed by Yolanda Sonnabend, cavort around the stage like the expectant participants of a satanic cult. It's a forceful spectacle. The three masked high priests who preside over them are sinister and threatening. The choreography and mise en scenes of groups and individuals is fascinating, showing MacMillan's engagement with modern dance, and his rejection of 'pretty' ballet steps: flat feet, stamping, angular limbs, twisted spines, contractions, and back ripples are combined with plies, leaps and turned-out positions. Evidently exhausting and challenging to perform, this melange of ballet and modern styles is brilliantly enacted by the ENB dancers, from Sarah Mcllroy as The Chosen One to every last member of the cast. When they are all dancing flat out, it's sensational to witness, orgiastic, powerful and terrifying. But there are comical moments too, as in the huge caterpillar line that zig-zags across the stage, formed by the dancers sitting on the floor, one behind the other, legs open. Mcllroy's dance to the death is contained yet intense. There's an inevitability about it; she shows little resistance, only a will to keep moving, until she finally falls, genuinely exhausted. The impact of the choreography is of course largely influenced by Stravinsky's score, which sounds more and more like a Hitchcock theme the more I hear it. It's timeless, chilling and rousing, and MacMillan's ambitious version does it justice.

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