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Reconstruction: 'Le Chant Du Rossignol'

Film screening and coaching session

by Petra Tschiene

May 14, 2004 -- Linbury Studio Theatre, Royal Opera House 2, London

Last Friday’s part of the ROH’s Diaghilev Celebration consisted of a film documentary following Millicent Hodson’s and Kenneth Archer’s efforts to reconstruct the first work Balanchine created for the Ballets Russes, "Le Chant du Rossignol", and a coaching session of the ballet’s vital Pas de Deux.

Stravinsky’s score had started its career as an opera ‘Le Rossignol’ commissioned by Diaghilev and premiered in 1914. After World War I during which the opera’s sets were destroyed, Diaghilev asked the composer to turn the opera into a ballet suite and in 1920 ‘Le Chant du Rossignol’ was premiered with designs by Henri Matisse and choreography by Leonid Massine. As the opera had been, the ballet was not a big success and Diaghilvev himself once again felt that the magical tale did not quite work. So 5 years later he asked the then only 21 year old George Balanchine, who had just joined the Ballets Russes from St. Petersburg, to create new choreography to Stravinsky’s ballet score.

As he said himself in archival footage, Balanchine quickly got caught between 2 very strong personalities. Stravinsky gave him very precise instructions about the tempi of the music which Balanchine strictly adhered to. After walking into a rehearsal, Diaghilev complained and told him, using his walking stick to demonstrate, ”That is too fast! It has got to be much slower like this ….” Balanchine obediently changed everything only to end up scolded by Stravinsky who said “ What is the matter with you?  Did you not understand my instructions? The tempo is like this….”

The music also caused initial problems for someone else. The then only 14 year old Alicia Markova who had just joined the company from London and who, due to her youth always had her governess with her on Diaghilev’s insistence, had been chosen to create the role of the Nightingale. Dame Alicia remembers that she burst into tears when she heard the music for her solos for the first time and feared that she would be sent straight back home for not being able to be of any use. Stravinsky had meant for these sections to
NOT be counted “… the music has to become part of you” he told her. Originally, the part of the Nightingale, who saves the Emperor’s life, but unlike in Anderson’s fairy tale, sacrifices her own life to do so, had not been conceived on pointe. That idea only came up just before the final rehearsal and in spite of her youth Alicia Markova managed to cope with everything that was thrown at her.

The most fascinating section of the documentary shows her teaching her role to an awe struck Royal Ballet School student named Iohna Loots. After tonight’s coaching session during which she took up the role of the nightingale again Iohna who is now a First Artist said that she would love to have this week with Dame Alicia again because now 10 years later with more experience and maturity she felt she would be able to benefit so much more from it.

Although Dame Alicia’s help was of course vital to their project, Millicent Hodson and Kenneth Archer also tracked down a lot of other pieces of the jigsaw during the reconstruction process. They found original costumes stored away all over the world, in some cases drawing conclusions from the fabric and cut as to what movements the wearers were likely to have been able to execute. They employed the help of photographs and they were lucky to be allowed access to the Matisse archives which had been closed for decades.

Judging from a few excerpts from the finished reconstruction created for Les Ballets de Monte Carlo the work appears in spite of its lavish costumes unfrilly, clear, geometrical with a remarkable modern feel considering its age.

After the documentary Millicent Hodson took us step by step through the crucial encounter between the Nightingale and Death. This Pas de Deux for 2 women was quite shocking at the time because of the violence it contains. One part of the choreography in which Death traps the Nightingale from behind in her skull necklace and ‘stabs’ her in the back with her foot, could be reconstructed because it had been described in detail by a famous dance critic.

Iohna Loots as the Nightingale and Cindy Jourdain as Death patiently marked sections over and over to enable Millicent Hodson to deliver an excellent running commentary and also treated us to a complete performance at the end. The role of Death with its high kicks and arm movements inspired by military salutes was Balanchine’s first created ‘Femme fatale’ which later influenced other roles like, for example, the Siren in "The Prodigal Son". Hodson also explained that a few gaps in the choreography they had just to make up after all avenues of obtaining information about the original choreography had been exhausted unsuccessfully. In the end after a long struggle the Nightingale outwits Death and manages to trap her feet in her own skull necklace. The danger to the Emperor is over but the Nightingale has been stabbed and dies a slow, agonising death.

This evening with its detailed insights into difficult process of reconstructing a ballet which has been lost was an absolute fascinating experience, and I sincerely hope that ROH2 will take up similar projects in the future.

Edited by Jeff.

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