In the space of two years, Mikhail Fokine created a trio of works that helped to change our perception of classical ballet. Chopinianaembodied the very idea of abstract ballet; The Firebird was a dramatic burst of Russian folklore; and Schéhérazade was a blaze of exotic Orientalism and sensational colour. No wonder audiences at the Ballets Russes in pre-First World War Paris were enthralled.
So were the London critics a century later:
Aspects of the design and staging may fall short of authenticity, but these ballets fill the stage with a blast of colour and conviction that triumph over many more careful revivals.
said The Guardian. Sarah Frater in The Evening Standard gave a bit of background,
It may seem blindingly obvious to us today but when the Mariinsky-trained Fokine insisted that the choreographic style and dramatic subject should relate to one another, and that choreography, music and design should be artistically unified and not randomly assembled, his ideas were met with hostility in the then Tsarist Russia.
The Independent thought this the best of the three ballets,
They’re at their best in Chopiniana, the ballet known in the west as Les Sylphides. Harking back to the Romantic ballets of the 1830s, Fokine shows a poet dancing with airy sylphs in a glade. Mariinsky sylphs have lighter hearts than their western counterparts. Orest Allegri’s forest set suggests the end of a long summer evening; no dank midnight or Gothic abbeys here. There’s a hint of sunshine in the light, brisk dancing.
This ballet was created for the company and, as The Financial Times notes,
St Petersburg’s traditions have guarded this romantic reverie since its creation there in 1908, and the cast illuminates every moment. “Reaching for the moon”, as Fokine told Alicia Markova, they dance with the softest accents, the lightest gusts of feeling as of step.
The Mariinsky’s corps de ballet has always been its trump card. The Guardian said,
The female soloists are impressive, but it’s the corps, in their collectively exquisite softness and their attention to Romantic style (delicately averted faces, thistledown jumps) who remind us of the poetry, as well as the drama that made Europe first fall in love so completely with the Russians.
And The Sunday Times spotted the expat:
… and as the Poet who has conjured this vision, Xander Parish, recruited last year from the corps ranks of the Royal Ballet to become the first British dancer ever to join the Mariinsky. Strong and with a long, elegant line, he was excellent in partnering, if less secure in solo.
Second up was
The Mariinsky Firebird, which forms the centrepiece of the programme, may suffer from slightly Disneyfied designs (reconstructions of the 1910 original), and from shamelessly acrobatic tweaks to the choreography. But such issues are submerged in the thrilling spectacle of the dancing. The monsters in the Infernal Dance mass and surge like creatures from a nightmare, while Ekaterina Kondaurova is a Firebird of scorching intensity. Physically, she’s perfect for the role, with her long, strong body, her glittering, scouring gaze. But she’s also more completely in character than almost any ballerina I’ve seen, from the flickering, flaring detail of her hands and eyes to the self-immolating ferocity of her jump.
said The Guardian. The Sunday Times agreed,
Ekaterina Kondaurova was a tremendous Firebird, long-limbed, soaringly thrilling in flight, exotically glamorous, powerfully authoritative in quelling the evil magician’s cohort of demons.
and so did everybody else: The Times,
Ekaterina Kondaurova was exotically beautiful, dancing with creamy strength and an alluring diva hauteur.
I was bowled over by the huge shapes carved in the air by Ekaterina Kondaurova as the Firebird
Firebird was further spiced, above all, by a stunning central performance from first soloist Ekaterina Kondaurova. Blessed with film-star cheekbones and a long but fleet physique, she was as skittish and elemental as a firefly (apt to say the least), but also lustrously feminine and utterly authoritative.
Ekaterina Kondaurova as the Firebird dominated the performance. Her nimble, darting style and sustained characterisation exactly captured the Firebird’s fearsome independence. There was almost a Carmen quality to her longing to be free.
And so on… The star of the show.
The Times points out that,
In Isabelle Fokine and Liepa’s hands, Schéhérazade is a fevered melodrama more vulgar than voluptuous. Yet even so, it’s a marvel of serpentine sexuality and orgiastic abandon, though the reproduction of Bakst’s designs are less flamboyant than the original.
The Mariinsky field two stellar leads,
Diana Vishneva enjoys herself as the unfaithful queen Zobeide, all crimson lipstick and yearning limbs. Igor Zelensky lacks the explosive technique, and the sensuality, to be the Golden Slave she lusts after.
said The Independent. The Telegraph thought differently,
As the sultan’s ill-fated favourite, Zobeide, Diana Vishneva put her wasp-waisted abdomen to simply astonishing use. And, if Igor Zelensky’s age is now telling in his jumping – he no longer appears to dance mid-flight, as he used to – his fusion of crisp technique and shameless braggadocio made him a worthy object of her affections. In their hands, Fokine’s duets looked like lust incarnate, even if Zelensky did accidentally administer a mid-turn wallop to one unfortunate wife.
The Arts Desk loved the dancing but wa even more taken by the décor,
Originally choreographed for Nijinksy, there is a heroic role for Igor Zelensky, who performs manfully, and Diana Vishneva, his adoring odalisque, who purrs felinely beside him. But apart from Zelensky’s show-stopper turns, the piece is primarily focused on the vivid, glittering décor, all jewel colours and bare midriffs. Bakst’s oranges, purples, turquoises, his depiction of an elegantly savage harem, entranced Paris a century ago, and today it continues to charm, without perhaps ever being able to shock, or even surprise, as it once so obviously did.
The Guardian, as all of the London critics, loved the central couple,
Diana Vishneva and Igor Zelensky are completely compelling as Zobeide and the Golden Slave. Initially, the silky, mannered eroticism of their dancing appears exaggerated to the point of narcissism. Yet they’re portraying two beautiful creatures, reared in captivity for decoration and sex. Zobeide only knows how to move like a concubine, the Slave like a show animal (at 42, Zelensky dances like a man 10 years his junior). When a glimmer of spontaneous emotion breaks through their love duet, the effect is peculiarly touching.
Another success from the Mariinsky then. As The Telegraph says,
The Mariinsky Ballet’s tribute to the great Russian choreographer Mikhail Fokine (1880-1942) is a multifarious, multicoloured delight.