The visionary behind the Ballet Russes' visit to Abu Dhabi this week talks to Rebecca McLaughlin-Duane
It is not a discipline that one associates with rebellion and controversy. Indeed, the frothy tutus, satin slippers and technical precision of ballet are the very model of high classical European culture. Yet 100 years ago, the Ballets Russes, a loose company of Russian dancers, choreographers, musicians and designers, brought a storm of innovation to Paris and western Europe, even inciting a near-riot at one scandalous performance, and fostering creative collaborations that were extraordinary.
Through the productions of the impresario Diaghilev - a polymath who had studied music, art and law - and his long-term partners Alexandre Benois and the artist and designer Léon Bakst, the world was to discover the revolutionary choreography of Petipa, Nijinsky and Balanchine, sets and designs by Picasso and Coco Chanel, and music by Satie, Prokofiev, Ravel and Stravinsky, among others.
This touring company would change the course of dance, music and set design, pioneering the expressionist, the avant-garde and the abstract in a cultural world that still predominantly enjoyed the elegantly romantic 19th-century ballets - as we do today. Indeed, for many people, the juddering, clashing chords of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring still shock, and those who revel in the carefully turned out toes and delicately arched arms of classical ballet may still find the freeness of Nijinsky's choreography (or what we know of it from the evidence we have) jarring.
It seems strange that the works of such an influential movement can be so little known and appreciated a century later, and it is probably as much a consequence of the 20th century's turbulent history as the company's own fragmentary existence. This was the thinking that led the former ballet star Andris Liepa to attempt a rediscovery of the Ballets Russes' performances. Alongside the choreographer Robert Joffrey, Liepa is credited with having restored these performances to their former glory while remaining faithful to them in every detail possible, from the music to the costumes to the sets and choreography.
Sixty dancers from the Kremlin Ballet Theatre, including principals from the Bolshoi, will perform Russian Seasons of the XXI Century in Abu Dhabi on Thursday evening in the Emirates Palace auditorium, a choice that echoes Diaghilev's original aim to bring Russia's contemporary creative talent to the world's attention.
"The Russian Seasons first started in 1906 when he brought over a beautiful portrait exhibition, causing quite a sensation," says Liepa, who is the director of the Diaghilev Festival. "Three years later he brought the Russian ballet to the West, with performances including Cleopatra, and it was an incredible success."
A century on, Diaghilev's work still resonates with audiences today, says Liepa. "Our company celebrated his centenary just two years ago and we haven't stopped touring with his work in Paris, London, Rome and Madrid since."
For the company's UAE debut, Liepa has selected two masterpieces from Diaghilev's repertoire: Chopiniana by Frédéric Chopin and Polovets Dances by Alexander Borodin.
"This is such a great opportunity for Russia to deliver something exciting and unique to the young and ambitious capital city," he says.
But what of that shock-inducing choreography, which was rarely notated and one would think impossible to replicate?
"The dances and steps are as true as we could make them. There are some pictures but of course we never had video of the original to compare it with. So we have worked closely with previous generations of dancers and the steps have been transferred, as we say, 'leg-to-leg' and the legacy has been handed down through the years."
For Diaghilev - who worked with Debussy, Rimsky-Korsakov and his most notable composer-collaborator Igor Stravinsky - music was the most important component of the performances, says Liepa; Diaghilev was convinced that without the perfect score, his ballets were doomed to failure.
Unlike the choreography, the music requires no guesswork. Liepa says: "We haven't changed it at all. We're using a soundtrack of the original score, which has been beautifully recorded by the St Petersburg state orchestra."
From The National