Scheherazade, The Firebird 27th August
The Blue God, The Firebird, Bolero 28th August
Palais Des Festivals
The Festival de l’art Russe has become a fixture in Cannes with regular summer performances in the celebrated Palais des Festivals, home of the Cannes Film Festival. The Palais is a disappointingly ugly building from the outside (the locals don’t care for it either I’m told), but the interior boasts one of the widest stages I’ve ever seen: ideal for the expansive style of Russian dancers. The ballet company on this occasion was the Kremlin Ballet, whose Moscow home boasts a stage of similar dimensions, appearing with guests from both the Bolshoi and Kirov companies.
With a wonderful score and the Arabian Nights storyline Scheherazade has always proved popular, especially if a really good male dancer can be found for the central role of the Golden Slave, but for me the Isobel Fokine versions simply aren’t Scheherazade any more. What was once a tale of lust in the harem culminating in carnage is now a rather sentimental piece about the love of Zobeide for one of the palace slaves ending messily and the more exciting elements of the choreography, including the spectacular death of the Golden Slave have disappeared along the way. In my view only the casting can save this piece now and it has to be exceptional casting at that. In Cannes it was very exceptional with the Bolshoi’s Nikolai Tsiskaridze and Ilse Liepa in the central roles. Both these dancers have sufficient stage presence to make the work appear worthwhile in spite of the intrinsic failings within the production. Ms Liepa is one of those very fortunate women that appear untouched by time and her finely chiselled face now has the classic look of a Marlene Dietrich; she dances the role of Zobeide with an icy intensity that I imagine Ida Rubenstein had. If Liepa is outwardly cool, Tsiskaridze is so hot he burns up the stage both with his dancing and his intense portrayal of the slave so sexually rampant that he has to be caged. Both gave stellar performances but I’m sorry to report there was some indifferent dancing from the corps de ballet.
The Firebird has also suffered from a revisionist production and the two Firebirds I saw, Alexandra Timofeeva (27th) and Irma Nioradze (28th) both had little that was bird-like about them and displayed rather too human emotions for my taste. The Ivan’s were rather better with the swaggering Ilya Kuznetsov impressive as ever opposite Nioradze and Sergei Smirnov equally good with Timofeeva. Best on stage award has to go to Natalia Balakhnitcheva as the Princess; both sensitive and regal, she really has the measure of the role. The booby prize however has to go to the silly giggling corps de ballet girls as Kostchei’s creatures at the back of the stage who appeared not to possess a modicum of stage professionalism and were highly irritating.
Bronislava Nijinska was the original choreographer of the first production of Ravel’s Bolero and the most surprising thing about seeing the ballet resurrected is the startling similarity to the more familiar version by Bejart. There is a huge table filling the centre of the stage on which a lone female dances surrounded by an admiring group of males seated around the edge, one of the onlookers briefly joins her on stage and he and the rest are inspired to strum guitars, draw daggers and indulge in a lot of stereotypical Spanish posturing.
It didn’t really work for me as a big table and Ravel’s music inevitably conjures up visions of Jorge Donn and an approach more sexual than pseudo-Spanish. For those members of the audience delighted by what they saw, I can only assume they were swayed wholly by the artistry of Ilse Liepa who dances with such total conviction that you admire her performance in spite of the work’s rather obvious clichés. If as the programme claims we were watching the first revival of the Nijinska choreography since 1928, then it’s easy to see why the piece had such a short shelf life. Bolero is a notoriously difficult work to stage and this version really doesn’t have enough going for it to warrant a revival with only Ms Liepa’s performance lifting it from what might be deserved obscurity.
The highlight of the two evenings was a re-working of one of Nijinsky’s most famous vehicles, The Blue God. This now has new choreography by Wayne Eagling but retains both the Jean Cocteau libretto and the Leon Bakst sets, though the original music by Reynaldo Hahn has been jettisoned in favour of two works by Scriabin: the Divine Poem and the Poem of Ecstasy. Originally choreographed by Fokine, the ballet evoked mixed feelings among the critics of the time though the choreography was generally admired, but it never became a fixture in the Ballet Russe repertoire.
The story concerns a young man chosen to join the celibate priesthood at a Hindu temple, his young lover cannot accept his fate and begs the high priest to release him, but is punished for her audacity by being taken in chains to be sacrificed to a monster. While the girl lies unconscious with terror a goddess appears from inside the sacred lotus flower, to be joined by her son, the Blue God himself. They take pity on the girl being punished for her love and cause her chains to magically fall from her wrists. The Blue God admonishes the high priest and the young lovers are reunited. According to Cyril Beaumont (Michel Fokine and his Ballets 1945) there is a now a slight difference in the story line as originally the Goddess was the Blue God’s consort whereas here she is described as his mother.
What impressed me immensely from the start was the faithful recreation of the Leon Bakst costume designs immediately recognizable from a book I have of his work. The restoration of costumes and sets is credited to Anna and Anatoly Nezhny and I’m full of admiration for their attention to the detail and colour of the originals. The set looks very similar to the original too and the only design difference I could detect was that the stuffed peacocks on the girls’ shoulders are different (and you thought the parrots on the wrists in Bayadere were over the top), as in his book on Fokine’s ballets Cyril Beaumont describes the tails as sweeping the ground as the dancers moved: these peacock tails are far shorter. A mention must also go to the monster that threatened the young girl, as this resembled a giant cobra with a head like a U.F.O and great glowing red eyes.
Wayne Eagling is a choreographer with a flair for large-scale flamboyant productions and with the pre existing elements of the exotic sets and costumes of Leon Bakst, his chosen score of two hothouse orchestral scores by Scriabin add to the exotic atmosphere. The choreography is of slightly variable quality as there is a lot of music to fill and much of the action is taken up with ceremonial entrances in the first half, but I loved the pas de deux for the two lovers, especially the imaginative lifts. The second half begins when Ilse Liepa as the Goddess emerges from the lotus flower to the opening bars of the Poem of Ecstasy, at first she dances alone, but is then joined by the Blue God himself, Nikolai Tsiskaridze. The Blue God is obviously based on Lord Krishna playing his reed pipe, but this is Krishna at his most majestic as Bakst imagines him in a dazzling costume of gold and jewels topped off by a bejewelled headdress edged with pearls and crowned with blue feathers: pure Bollywood. Eagling’s choreography for the two deities is more formal than for the mortals and is interspersed with Hindu inspired poses, but even with a restricted range of movement there was a high degree of originality. As the two gods Liepa was gracious and elegant, but full of solicitude towards the mortals while Tsiskaridze was more capricious under his aloof exterior. After the happy ending for the lovers the Blue God ascends the mountain towards heaven in a manner remarkably similar to Apollo in a ballet created some years later: nice to know Balanchine recycled Fokine’s good idea. This revival of an all but forgotten ballet is a success in my opinion and deserves to be seen by a far wider audience.
Unfortunately these performances were not accompanied by a live orchestra and the recordings used were either of a very low standard or the Palais de Festivals has an appalling sound system, either way this was quite a disappointment and was commented on by several people in the audience. Originally the programme should have included the ballet Tamar that was to have been danced by Nioradze but this was dropped without any explanation. As Ms Nioradze appeared as scheduled in The Firebird it clearly wasn’t shelved because she was unavailable. Also a dancer called Kristina Kretova was originally billed to appear as The Firebird alternating with Nioradze but it turns out this lady was touring the UK with an ad hoc group at the same time as the Cannes performances. The start times for both these works were 8.30 p.m. far too late for a programme that on the second night didn’t finish until midnight and the long drawn out intervals justifiably caused the impatient audience to begin a slow handclap. Although the principal guests were every bit as good as they are with their home companies, it seems that some of the members of the Kremlin Ballet didn’t care for acting as a backing group and simply couldn’t be bothered. A number of people had travelled from all over Europe for those two performances and they will take back rather mixed memories of what they saw.