London Coliseum, London, UK; July 11, 2014

Charlotte Kasner

Les Saisons Russes in 'Petrushka'.  Photo © Valeria Komissarova, courtesy Les Saisons Russes

Les Saisons Russes in ‘Petrushka’.
Photo © Valeria Komissarova, courtesy Les Saisons Russes

“Petrushka” is not an uncommon item on triple bills, but never can London have seen it as it was performed tonight.

London, Paris, Monte Carlo and Spain went mad for the Ballets Russes and weren’t slow to cash in on their popularity either. Auction houses occasionally produce a lot with figurines of the Moor, Ballerina and Petrushka from the turn of the century which might lead the uninitiated to think that they are from a childish story. Just as “Coppélia” is stripped of its sinister backbone and presented as a cute tale with dolls, “Petrushka” is often more than a little twee. There is an air of embarrassment about presenting the Moor in all his boorishness and Petrushka himself is less Pagliacci and more a floppy fool.

Les Saisons Russes have restored the savagery. It is all there in Stravinsky’s score, now recalling a fairground, now clashing primitivism. This is an unsophisticated gathering with drunks, gypsies, a dancing bear and of course the prancing coachmen recalled by Karsavina from her youth. Into this comes the brutish magician with his powerless triumvirate. We see them jerking like hanged men for the amusement of the fair and then the world is turned round and we become privy to the dark and tortured world that the puppets represent. Poor little Petrushka, the yurodivy or holy fool; the empty headed Ballerina with no thought but for her own vanity; and the gross Moor, a stupid glutton satiating his own carnal and base desires. Poor Russia is painted in the insipid pastels of the carnival and the garish decor of the puppets’ home. Petrushka’s death is vicious and shocking: all that is good in Russia stamped out by crass brutality and greed.

The remarkable Pavel Okunev, fresh from his triumph in the virtuoso role of the eponymous Coq d’Or, gives us a Petrushka the like of which has not perhaps been seen since Nijinsky. Nureyev and Mukhamedov presented intelligently considered versions on London stages but this performance is searing and raw. Okunev’s physicality is amazing. He is both loose and weighted. His taught, cocky cockerel belied this ragdoll, with all the stuffing beaten out of him. When his ghost rises above the puppet theatre to haunt the magician, it is truly terrifying, the embodiment of the Russian soul, crushed but lingering.

Les Saisons Russes in 'Chopiniana'.  Photo © Elena Lapina, courtesy Les Saisons Russes

Les Saisons Russes in ‘Chopiniana’.
Photo © Elena Lapina, courtesy Les Saisons Russes

What a change then to be transported to a moonlit glade, the ghosts this time, rather sinister sylphs. I confess, I have been known to sit “Les Sylphides” out in the bar. This ballet has suffered over the years in Britain. A staple of war time touring companies when the dearth of men made the casting requirements ideal, it saw many insipid, limp productions and became watered down and devoid of meaning. The Romantic roots that Fokine dug up when ballet blanc had become so unfashionable were brooding, suicidal, drug-infested and dark. The beauty of the moonlit glade is the beauty of death, the sylphs the link between this world and the next.

“Chopiniana” is one of the few Fokine ballets that continued to be produced in Russia and the Soviet Union. It cannot be underestimated what a shock it must have been to Diaghilev’s audience in London, Paris and Monte Carlo. It must have been as if the Sex Pistols suddenly decided to sing barber shop quartets. What on earth was Fokine, the arch modernist, doing reviving this dated art form that he had strived to surpass? Well of course, he did not destroy ballet’s roots; he teased them out and developed them. “Chopiniana” pays tribute to Chopin the political revolutionary and reminds everyone not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

These sylphs are downy light. Thistledown floating upwards to be arrested in seeming flight by Georgi Smilevski’s danseur noble poet. No wishy-washy dreamer he, this is a virile man who has made a decision to dance with death. Like their cousins the wilis, their appearance does not bode well for mortal man. Their ethereal bodies almost convince that they are see-through, as they glide, float and sport in the blue moonlight and lead the poet to his fate.

Les Saisons Russes in 'Polovtsian Dances'.  Photo © Elena Lapina, courtesy Les Saisons Russes

Les Saisons Russes in ‘Polovtsian Dances’.
Photo © Elena Lapina, courtesy Les Saisons Russes

“Polotsvian Dances” however, is a robust favourite although rarely heard in Russian and certainly not with a full chorus of this calibre. This was full on, all stops out dancing; sensuous and martial with no time to take a breath. Men whirled and women writhed in a blur of colour that was so vigorous that it was exhausting to watch. The free, masculinity of the men’s’ choreography is now the norm, but then must have burst onto the scene like an explosion. Not until DV8 a century later were male dancers given such exciting breaks. Women, freed of their stays and body stockings were dangerously eastern and spawned a fashion revolution across Europe.

What looked like a familiar programme proved anything but and left an air of excitement that was almost palpable.