Swan in a neck brace
We critics - dressed in our usual dowdy - were discombobulated when we arrived at Sadler's Wells last week for English National Ballet's tribute to Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. There was a red (actually black) carpet, and a healthy jostle of paparazzi. Not, it turned out, for us (who knew?), but because there were British stars in attendance. Jeremy Irons, Stephen Fry, Matt Smith (who? The new Dr Who, that's who. Much excited squeaking in our corner of the foyer...). And the stars were there, because Karl Lagerfeld had created a fashion-forward tutu for ballerina Elena Glurdjidze, performing Anna Pavlova's signature solo The Dying Swan. See? Swan plus fashion plus celebrity = an Event.
Diaghilev, the matchless impresario who spun like a virtuoso, would have been proud. He both hired fashion designers (notably Chanel, now directed by Lagerfeld) and inspired them. However, as a monster among artistic monsters (Picasso, Stravinsky, Nijinsky, Fokine), he would also have been able to insist on changes to the Lagerfeld tutu, which was hideous. Glurdjidze didn't look so much like a dying swan as a fatally injured one - the feathered chocker was hefty as a neck brace, and the bodice swaddled her. As the Guardian's Judith Mackrell suggested, Lagerfeld disregards the needs of the dancing body (his own film of tubby the tutu is here). Where ballet costume works to give the illusion of weightlessness, this was earthbound - less swan than turkey.
The best thing about the programme was that it reminded us how various the Ballets Russes repertoire was, and how it altered during the twenty years of Diaghilev's exacting and unsentimental stewardship. Burning bridges as he went, he kept his eye on the next big thing. Fokine's limpid early pieces gave way to Nijinsky's startling primitivism; Nijinska, Massine and Balanchine followed and tugged the repertoire in new directions.
It was Fokine's perfume and exoticism that dominated the ENB programme. The wretched swan and Le Spectre de la Rose seem to have lost their scent - like flowers long ago pressed in a book, you know they must be important to someone, but struggle to guess who, or why. (Spectre's set, however, does have the most fab artistic wallpaper, except perhaps for Les parapluies de Cherbourg, a movie which is all about the wallpaper.)
There was also a world premiere, Faun(e) by David Dawson, set to Debussy's score to L'après-midi. It shared with Nijinsky's original a narcissistic, masturbatory impulse: two men in grey rehearsal frocks, watching and dancing, older and younger shadowing each other's memories and fantasies in an empty theatre.
A programme bookended by Apollo's diamond patterns and Schéhérazade's deranged tumble of gems and garnets, to begin with Balanchine and work back to Fokine, is to see how Diaghilev steered a path for his company between popular entertainment and stark modernism. And he kept the work coming, and kept people guessing what he'd do next. The unpredictable is always in fashion.
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