Like the casket-full of pearls with which the concubines bribe the chief eunuch in Scheherazade, a lavishly decorated curtain reveals the jewels of the Russian Seasons of the XXI Century at the London Coliseum. Andris Liepa, a former Bolshoi Ballet dancer now turned impresario, has adopted the role of a contemporary Diaghilev and brought precious choreographies and artists to London. And today’s Coliseum would surely have been an obligatory stop for the original Ballets Russes company. Reviving the memorable 1910 Parisian season, Liepa’s company contains some of the best Russian stars, and dazzles with fog, thunder and sparkles, like these pieces did at their premières, more than a century ago. But most of all, the productions inspire with their passion for dance.

Russian Season of the 21st Century: Scheherazade. Yulia Makhalina as Zobeide and Xander Parish as Th © Kashvili
Russian Season of the 21st Century: Scheherazade. Yulia Makhalina as Zobeide and Xander Parish as Th
© Kashvili

In the hope of seeing it next season, I shall start by mentioning a great omission: the cancellation due to injury of Cleopatra – Ida Rubinstein. A tribute to this belle époque figure with choreography by Patrick de Bana which premièred in 2009, it is loosely based on actual facts. It narrates the story of Ida Rubinstein, a wealthy Russian lady who under Mikhail Fokine’s direction was able to perform for two seasons with the Ballets Russes, before leading her own company. Despite her little formal training, she performed the major female roles of Cleopatra and Sheherazade in 1910 in Paris. The ballet recalls her life on the Parisian stages with the great ballet figures of the time.

After a few words of introduction by Liepa, the show starts with the curtains rising on the forest of The Firebird. The piece, composed of several Russian fairy-tales, startled the Parisian audience for its innovative approach to the dancing and led to Igor Stravinsky’s breakthrough. Revived several times, including by Balanchine in 1949, it has kept adapting to the demands of the age, and its setting had often changed considerably. It is thus greatly interesting to see it with the original decor and special effects of a century ago. Magnificently reconstructed, the original set by Léon Bakst gives to the story a darker undertone, much in line with Stravinsky’s score. The story goes that Prince Ivan, the brave Ilya Kuznetsov, captures the Firebird, Alexandra Timofeeva of the Kremlin Ballet, who convinced everyone with her fluid arms in her brilliant interpretation of a bubbly, cheeky bird. Together they defeat a viscously dangerous Igor Pivorovich as Koschei the Deathless, who dazzled with an almost unnaturally liquid descent from the castle hill to save Natalia Balkhnicheva, also Kremlin Ballet, as the Princess. The large cast, interpreting the various monsters with great effect, complemented the soloists well. The old-fashioned but still perfectly working special effects were truly scary, giving a final chill.

The second piece, the Thousand and One Nights-inspired Scheherazade, was the scandal of the Parisian 1910 season. Such was its success that it even influenced fashion. On music by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and settings by Bakst, Fokine’s choreography is a mix of sex and blood in the best tragic tradition that obviously appealed the taste for scandal of the Parisian audience. The secret love story of the Sultan’s favourite wife Zobeide with the slave Sheherazade could not but end badly with the carnage of the whole harem and the suicide of Zobeide. Vaslav Nijinsky, whose interpretation of the Golden Slave is legendary, partnered the great Tamara Karsavina in the première. The passion piece could not but suit the Russian Ballet style, and no better couple could have been chosen than Yulia Makhalina (Mariinsky Theatre) and her passionate partner Nikolay Tsiskardize (whose supporters in the audience made themselves clearly heard, and indeed for good reason). His masculinity is proportional the elevation of his jumps, and brilliantly juxtaposed to Makhalina’s seductive and twirling allure – and all this in spite of the beautiful but surely uncomfortable gems that cover their costumes. The rest of the cast is able to hold up to the couple: so the dazzling and elusive concubines in pink seduce the eunuchs with their funnily awkward movements. They are bribed by the cunning concubines in brown to let the slaves in while the Sultan is away.

The Russian Seasons of XXI Century is the perfect retro-programme while we wait for their next season in London. A successful production, the extremely skilful and enormous cast, and the magnificent, beautiful costumes are a pleasure to watch. The Russian style, where passion drives each step and not the other way round, is extremely refreshing and inspiring. Perfect technique is bypassed by feelings so that steps and forms are only secondary to the emotional motor that makes everything looks passionately alive. I would be very surprised not to see ladies in concubines’ trousers walking around London very soon.

****1