Sergei Diaghilev, founder of the Ballets Russes Company, was an extraordinary talent who revolutionised ballet and opera through his innovative use of music, design and choreography. The Diaghilev Festival at the Coliseum celebrates his achievements with three programmes of lost and more familiar work showcasing Russian star performers and dancers from the Kremlin Ballet Theatre.
The performance opens with the UK premiere of The Blue God, a role created for Nijinsky. Originally choreographed by Michel Fokine this version has been revised by Wayne Eagling. Likewise the stunning Leon Bakst designs have been faithfully recreated by Anna and Anatoly Nezhny. It is hard not to be dazzled by the full blast of colour on stage. The story follows two young lovers who are separated when the young man, Mikhail Yevgenov, is chosen to join the priesthood. The girl begs the priest to release her lover but is enslaved for her actions and due to be sacrificed until the Blue God intervenes and reunites the young lovers.
The choreography is mixed. The first section, filled with processional dancing, is relieved by the appearance of Natalia Blackhnicheva who dances the role of the young girl with exquisite delicacy and lightness, characterising her innocence and courage with grace. The pas de deux of the two young lovers featuring a variety of lifts is a delight. The second section begins when the glamorous Goddess of the Lotus, Ilze Liepa, emerges from the flower and dances seductively, before she is joined by the Blue God himself, danced by Nikolai Tsiskaridze. Considering the ballet is in effect a vehicle for this role the choreography in this overly long sequence, although executed well was disappointing, despite the majesty of the costume. It was fascinating to see this bejewelled colourful production but the grandeur of the design far outweighs the content. There is little psychological depth to the action on stage and as a result it feels very much like a period piece.
The Firebird was Igor Stravinsky's breakthrough work of 1910 and the level of collaboration between the composer and choreographer Michel Fokine is apparent throughout as dance and music blend seamlessly. The story is based on a Russian folk tale where Prince Ivan, assisted by the Firebird, destroys the evil magician Kashchei the immortal, marries his princess and brings happiness to the kingdom. The set and costumes, once again restored from the original are magnificent, especially the vivid scarlet of the Firebird costume and the final golden backdrop. Alexandra Timofeyeva dances the Firebird with strength and delicacy, capturing the fluttering movements of the bird with head and hands. Her pas de deux with Ivan, Ilya Kuznetsov, embodies the romantic lyrical brilliance of the choreography. The drama on stage moves from dark to light while the powerful music drives our emotions forward. This is a piece which most definitely stands the test of time.
Undoubtedly the intentions behind this festival are good. One has to admire the investment of effort in restoring and recognising the work of this great master who in his lifetime was recognised for radical risk taking. The question for a modern audience watching this reverential homage is whether the work is relevant today or simply a museum piece worthwhile for its historical value alone. Judging by the first programme there is no straight answer.