writers on dancing


A Tribute to Diaghilev and a Music Hall "Firebird"

Russian fairytales
("Petrushka", "Les Sylphides", "The Firebird")
Dutch National Ballet
Het Muziektheater Amsterdam
December 27-28, 2004

by Marc Haegeman
copyright © 2004 by by By Marc Haegeman

In the Netherlands two noteworthy events this winter commemorate the seventy-fifth year of Sergei Diaghilev’s death. The northern Dutch town of Groningen dedicates an exhibition to the great impresario, followed at the end of January by a four-day Diaghilev Festival, which hosts several world renowned companies and orchestras, including the Mariinsky, the Royal Ballet, the Joffrey Ballet and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. This December the Dutch National Ballet in Amsterdam, also taking part in the Festival, contributed to the celebrations by performing three of the ballets which Diaghilev brought to the West as part of his revelatory Ballets Russes seasons.

It’s somewhat unfortunate that the Dutch National Ballet brought "Petrushka", "Les Sylphides" and "The Firebird" (in that order) under the less than appropriate title “Russian fairytales” instead of referring to Diaghilev or the Ballets Russes. "Les Sylphides" can hardly be called a fairytale and the ballet that fits best into that category, "The Firebird", is shown in yet another reworking by artistic director Ted Brandsen, who stripped the story of its traditional fairytale character by turning it into a no-brainer metaphor for the coming of spring.

The programme started well with "Petrushka" and "Les Sylphides", performed in their original Mikhail Fokine choreography, although "Les Sylphides" should have come first. For "Petrushka" the famous Alexandre Benois designs and costumes were recreated by Toer Van Schayk. Overall, the company did a fine job with this quintessentially Russian subject and there were just a few instances where one hoped the gesturing would also have a meaning. The crowd scenes were vibrant enough, if somewhat dwarfed by the spacious Muziektheater stage. Too many details got lost and it might have been preferable to narrow the stage for the whole ballet as they did for the in-chamber scenes.

None of the leading casts I saw in "Petrushka" were ideal. The trio Cédric Ygnace, Charlotte Chapelier and Rubinald Rofino Pronk couldn’t conceal they were human beings pretending to be puppets. Cédric Ygnace’s Petrushka, especially, never really convinced, keeping his feet turned out for most of the time and falling down very cautiously. Altin Kaftira’s "Petrushka" in a second cast was preferable. His make-up looked better and even if he overplayed the pathos, his death scene was well crafted. Both Charlotte Chapelier and Julie Gardette were one-dimensional ballerinas and their dance lacked crispness, all the more obvious in the passage with the cornet.

Toer Van Schayk also signed for the designs of "Les Sylphides", but here he replaced the nocturnal romanticism of the traditional moonlit forest by a starker, more abstract, visual image. Six gigantic leafless tree branches pointed out of the wings, three on each side of the stage, hovering over the sylphs as immense threatening claws. Except for a suggestively lit backcloth there was no other scenic adornment and I am sure the visual beauty of Fokine’s groupings wouldn’t have been any less without the fake tree-stumps. The traditional sylph skirts were thankfully untouched. Yet while some members of the audience considered the costumes for "Petrushka" dusty and old, the opening of "Les Sylphides" was always greeted with applause.

When I saw them in the middle of the run the corps de ballet looked very well rehearsed, and the cast headed by Igone de Jongh, Boris de Leeuw, Yumiko Takeshima (Waltz) and Nathalie Caris (Prelude) left very little to desire indeed. Mr. De Leeuw danced the poet with an agreeable sweep and abandon, softening his virile strength to good effect, while Ms. de Jongh phrased with fluency as well as imagination. Ms. Caris was splendidly evocative in the Prelude.

The cast Sarah Fontaine, Raphaël Coumes-Marquet, Marisa Lopez, Ji-Young Kim was less successful overall. Only Ms. Lopez in the Mazurka, a former dancer with the San Francisco Ballet, stood out. She had the lightness and jump for the part, yet if only she could have held her positions that bit longer. Grand sujet Fontaine—I gather in a debut—with stiff arms and shoddy positions, struggled to get through the Prelude and was far too busy concentrating on the steps to get anything out of the following pas de deux. Mr. Coumes-Marquet was a rather earthbound poet.

With the new Firebird from Ted Brandsen, created for the company, every ounce of poetry evoked by the preceding "Sylphides" was blatantly dispelled. And so was, I fear, every claim at artistic credibility for the rest of the evening.

Essentially, the Brandsen reworking is "The Firebird" meets "The Rite of Spring" in Las Vegas style, and sans the clear storyline and intriguing choreographic invention of the original ballets. Armed with a set that clumsily evokes icy rocks (by Paul Gallis), a mix of lighting effects liable to have disco-fans from the 1970s jump up in a bout of nostalgia, as well as embarrassingly tasteless wardrobes (designed by François-Noël Cherpin), Mr. Brandsen gauchely tried to impose his own idea of “Gesamtkunstwerk”.

The girls, supposed to portray birds in this version, were dressed like music hall girls, feathers, black stockings and pointe shoes included—"Western Symphony" wasn’t far, yet Karinska was. The evil Kashtchei—named here Kaytshey, who freezes everybody to sleep—looked like a winter-season version of Crassus from Yuri Grigorovich’s "Spartacus" with what resembled a Roman breastplate, and adorned with long white hair around his shoulders, arms, and with spotless white boots. With his spiky silvery hair (the programme book explained he is some sort of a cat) and preposterous gesturing he conveyed as much menace as a slice of white bread.

In spite of using a reduced version of Stravinsky’s score (and very well played by the Holland Symfonia under Ermanno Florio), the confusing narrative and cartoony characters prevented this "Firebird" from ever achieving lift-off, while Brandsen’s classically rooted choreography looked disappointingly repetitive and meaningless, unable to create any character or situation. The ensemble sections had all the brilliance of a glittery costumed ball that turned haywire and the festive ending of the ballet was seen here as a climactic rumble between "The Firebird" and Kaytshey and his feline followers. To underscore the triumph of "The Firebird" over winter six weedy birch trees sprung up from behind the icy rocks in the last few seconds. It had part of the audience in giggles and looked like ballet’s best warning against global warming, but it was hardly a fitting homage to Diaghilev.

Sofiane Sylve, back from New York City Ballet for a few guest performances with her former company, danced the main role. Just like Gaël Lambiotte as the poor Ivan and Raphaël Coumes-Marquet as Kaytshey, she remained stranded within this tale of boredom. It was a most unhappy ending for an otherwise remarkable programme. This company does deserve better.

Volume 3, No. 2
January 10, 2005
Copyright ©2005 by Marc Haegeman


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last updated on January10, 2005