REVIEW: In the Spirit of Diaghilev Sadler's Wells Islington

PUBLISHED: 16:27 05 November 2009 | UPDATED: 16:31 07 September 2010

Three star rating This year, the arts are celebrating the centenery of Serge Diaghilev s Ballets Russes which, between 1909 and 1929, astounded the Western world with dance, music and design. Apart from his magnificent dancers - Nijinsky, Pavlova, Bolm

Three star rating

This year, the arts are celebrating the centenery of Serge Diaghilev's Ballets Russes which, between 1909 and 1929, astounded the Western world with dance, music and design. Apart from his magnificent dancers - Nijinsky, Pavlova, Bolm, Karsavina - and revolutionary choreographers - Fokine, Massine, Balanchine, Lifar - Diaghilev employed and nurtured composers such as Stravinsky, Prokoviev, Ravel, Debussy, Satie and Milhaud and painters such as Picasso, Matisse, Gabo, Goncharova, Laurencin et al.

Now, Alistair Spalding, artistic director of Sadler's Wells, has had the laudable idea of inviting four contemporary choreographers to create works "In The Spirit Of Diaghilev", reprising Diaghilev's famous challenge to his collaborator, Jean Cocteau, "surprise me!"

Wayne McGregor's Dyad 1909 takes as its formative idea Shackleton's 1909 expedition to the Antarctic. Despite an atmospheric score by Olafur Arnalds and a somewhat distracting decor, the choreography does nothing to evoke the chosen theme. McGregor's usual stretchy, slithery style would serve to accompany any scenario; one can but admire the extreme flexibility of the dancers, four men, three women.

AfterLight, by Russell Maliphant, to sections of Erik Satie's Gnossiennes for piano, is much more successful. A solo for a male dancer, Daniel Proietto, it was inspired by Nijinsky's abstract sketches and designs utilising arcs, circles and curves. The choreography is thus built around swirling, looping forms, varying in extent and speed and beautifully lit by Michael Hulls. In performance, it was a tour de force by Proietto, a combination of physical pliancy and extraordinary stamina.

Nijinsky's original faun to Debussy's L'Apres-midi d'un faune, caused a scandal in 1913, his stylised animal simulating sex with his fetish object, a scarf dropped by a nymph. Faun, by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, uses the same music, with interpolations by Nitin Sawhney, and explores a binery human-animal relationship for his two dancers, James O'Hara and Daisy Phillips. Again, one applauds the astonishing energy and plasticity of these two performers although the choreography, much of which takes place on the floor, seemed more reminiscent of reptiles or insects rather than woodland creatures. The music was beautifully played by an ad hoc orchestra under the direction of Dominic Wheeler.

Finally, something of a would-be shocker by Javier De Frutos, entitled Eternal Damnation To Sancho And Sanchez, a satire supposedly inspired by the scenarios of Cocteau, although the references escape me.

On a raised platform, within a decor of classical male figures with rampant erections, five robed figures, two men, three women, supervised by a grotesque Pope-figure with swollen belly and buttocks and a humped back, engage in shrieking, grunting simulated fornication culminating in a pregnant woman being garrotted by a rosary. The whole absurd farrago is performed to the waltz from Ravel's Mother Goose Suite and his La Valse. Ironically, Diaghilev, having commissioned the latter score from Ravel, pronounced it unsuitable for ballet.

Whether Diaghilev would have been surprised by De Frutos's work it is impossible to tell; I suspect he would have thought it just plain silly.

Edward Thorpe

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