London Coliseum, London, UK; July 13, 2014

Charlotte Kasner

Shéhérazade (04). Yulia Makhalina as Zobiede in 'Shéhérazade'.  Photo © Valeria Komissarova

Yulia Makhalina as Zobiede in ‘Shéhérazade’.
Photo © Valeria Komissarova

Sadly, as we are not to see Swan Lake this season, the Gala by Saisons Russes was their farewell to London for this year, including a delightful presentation of “Zakuski”. Like the best of appetisers, we had snippets from “Coq d’Or” and the entire “Polotsvian Dances” with the addition of a surprise “Dying Swan” and the whole of “Schéhérazade”.

It was the latter that opened the afternoon and provided intimation of what it might have been like for the audience that first witnessed it in 1910. It was this production more than any other that initiated fashionable trends and set London alight with its exoticism, making the Ballets Russes the hottest ticket in town. Matrons used to sober suits suddenly sported glittering turbans and harem pants covered a multitude of sins on those more accustomed to staid stays. Recent domestic productions have tended towards the camp and histrionic. Like Fry’s Turkish Delight, they purport to be full of eastern promise, but yield a sickly, cloying outer coating and a rubbery middle. However, as with “Petrushka” earlier in the week, we were now reminded of the emotional power inherent in the work.

Fokine was obliged to limit his choreography for Zobeida, here danced by Julia Makhalina of the Mariinsky, as the creator of the role, Ida Lvovna Rubinstein, was a very poor technician. What she did have in abundance was stage presence and money. Cecchetti tolerated her in his class and Diaghilev in his company because of the money and the presence, combined with a fair smattering of bare flesh, gained her a following in the audience. Tall and thin, she was more akin to a modern idea of a dancer than the usual physique for 1910, and the fashion for strings of beads draped about the person made her look like an Erte drawing. Stripping naked at the conclusion of Salome’s dance of the seven veils probably helped a bit too.

It is fortunate therefore that the Saisons Russes company (and guests) have acting talent in abundance for that transports the work out of the, by now, familiarly exotic, into the dramatic. Bakst’s vibrant colours still have the power to seduce even if the prancing of harem girls is less titillating. Artem Yachmennikov’s Golden Slave was a sight to behold. We will never know if the legendary jump of the role’s creator Nijinsky would impress us today, used as we are to powerful technique as a matter of course, but Yachmennikov must have got close. He is a mighty slave, at first reticent but then emboldened. His death at the behest of the enraged Shah reminds one of that of a magnificent 12-point buck or downed lion. The slaughtering of the harem is really shocking and a palpable air of tension was sustained while Zobeide begged for mercy. Even more shocking then, once the Shah relents, that she takes her own life upon seeing her dead lover. Rimsky-Korsakov died two years before Diaghilev’s production and his widow was opposed to his use of the score for a ballet. Luckily for all concerned that her wishes were over ridden. The Natalia Sats Children’s’ Theatre orchestra did us proud in this most seductive and enchanting of symphonic poems.

The snippet of “Coq d’Or” was a tease, a reminder for those who saw the full production but tantalising for those who missed it. Let us hope that we will have the opportunity to see it again before too long.

The unexpected inclusion of “Dying Swan” was the only disappointment in this otherwise fabulous season. There seem to be many versions available but this was not one of the best, even if it was closer to Fokine’s intentions than some. Makhalina succumbed to the ever-present danger in this piece of too much flapping. She sat down, she got up, she sat down and got up again. Her final pose was positively ugly; dead she may be, but usually the swan dies with more grace. One thinks of Maya Plisetskaya’s tear-jerking swan, bouréeing with her back to the audience, her arms seeming to ripple out from the centre of her spine in waves of agony. There is film of Pavlova herself, less mighty than Plisetskaya, but all heart as she bends back, still bouréeing, and then rising again to fight death for a few more moments. Deceptively simple, this is a fiendish work to dance (it’s not the getting down, it’s the getting up again – and please can we have a break from the bourées!) and to carry off convincingly. What a genius Fokine was. Like “Les Sylphides”, this has been done (and parodied) to a turn and perhaps its challenges are one for an artist near the end of her career when technique has not deserted but has been bolstered by experience and wisdom.

Still, we did not have long to ponder before the joyous assault of “Polotsvian Dances”. There were clearly some in the audience who had not heard a Russian chorus at full throttle and several pairs of eyes turned wonderingly sideways while jaws threatened to gape. It is great fun to sing and the chorus threw themselves into it with as much gusto as the dancers and orchestra. By the way, the standard English translation is rubbish, so great to hear it in the original Russian.

It has been fascinating to see, over the years, how this company has discovered the Diaghilev heritage. Early steps sometimes stumbled and there was the disappointment of losing “Cleopatra” last season due to injury, but now they have reached their full maturity and taught those of us who have lived with the repertoire more than a few things about how it should be done as they come to it afresh. We may have had the first opportunity in a century to witness “Coq d’Or” in all its original glory with a full (brilliant) orchestra and a conductor, Alevtina Ioffe, worthy of any of Diaghilev’s illustrious conductors. Her energy radiated out of the pit and she must surely have the eyes of a spider to have kept such close co-ordination of singers, dancers and orchestra. Let us hope that we will not have to wait too long for a return visit.