YEVGENY YEVTUSHENKO A stand-up entertainer in cuffs that would have pleased Alexandre Benois.
The Russians are coming! Or at least, the Ballets Russes. Next year, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Serge Diaghilev’s creation, Ballets Russes 2009 will bring to Boston a week-long festival — May 16-23 — that will include an academic conference at BU, film screenings at the Museum of Fine Arts, lectures at the French Library and Cultural Center, a New England Conservatory performance of Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé, a Boston Pops program of Ballets Russes music, and a Boston Ballet program of Ballets Russes works: Balanchine’s Prodigal Son, Nijinsky’s L’Après-midi d’un Faune, Fokine’s Le Pavillon d’Armide and Le Spectre de la Rose, and Jorma Elo’s new version of Le Sacre du Printemps. To raise money for, and awareness of, the event, the Ballets Russes 2009 folks staged a “Russian Revel” last night at the Cutler Majestic Theatre.
It would be hard to overstate the importance of the Ballets Russes. Conceived in the aborted Russian Revolution of 1905, when both the Conservatory of Music and the Imperial Ballet in St. Petersburg went on strike, and born in Paris in 1909, it was the matrix of 20th-century ballet. Its creations included Les Sylphides, Schéhérazade, Firebird, Petrouchka, L’Après-midi d’un Faune, Le Sacre du Printemps, Les Noces, Apollon Musagète, and Prodigal Son. Among its stars: choreographers Michel Fokine, Vaslav Nijinsky, Bronislava Nijinska, Léonide Massine, and George Balanchine; dancers Anna Pavlova, Tamara Karsavina, Nijinsky, Serge Lifar, and Alexandra Danilova; set and costume designers Léon Bakst and Alexandre Benois; artists Pablo Picasso, Georges Braques, Maurice Utrillo, Joan Miró, Max Ernst, Giorgio de Chirico, and Georges Rouault; composers Igor Stravinsky, Claude Debussy, and Maurice Ravel. Diaghilev also presented opera, introducing Paris to Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov and Khovanshchina and Borodin’s Prince Igor and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Ivan the Terrible (The Maid of Pskov). Indeed, the ethos of the Ballets Russes was an artistic synthesis that had its roots in Diaghilev’s St. Petersburg journal Mir iskusstva (“The World of Art”), which he edited from 1898 to 1904, and his productions were as noted for their sets and costumes as for their choreography and the performances. After his death, in 1929, two touring companies carried on, one (under Serge Denham) as Ballet Russe, the other (under Colonel Vassily de Basil) as the Original Ballet Russe. Their descendants include the Royal Ballet in England and American Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet in America.
The idea for last night’s “Revel” was to present some selections from the Ballets Russes’ first ballet evening in Paris, on May 19, 1909 (the company had debuted the night before with a complete performance of Ivan the Terrible): the pas de deux from Le Pavillon d’Armide (the choreography reconstructed by Jurius Smoriginas); Russian mezzo Gulnara Zanova Mitzanova in Konchakovna’s cavatina from Prince Igor; Russian-born baritone Anton Belov in signature works of the great Russian bass Feodor Chaliapin; and long-time Met bass John Macurdy in the dying Boris Godunov’s farewell to his son. The concept was a little fuzzy: Le Pavillon d’Armide was indeed the first offering on the bill that May 19, but Konchakovna’s cavatina is from act one of Prince Igor and the Ballets Russes presented only act three, Feodor Chaliapin did not sing that evening, and the Ballets Russes had presented Boris Godunov the previous year. The major attractions, however, were Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko reading from his own work and, the big finish, Georgian ABT star Nina Ananiashvili doing Fokine’s The Dying Swan.
As Russian evenings go, it ran a compact hour and 45 minutes, without intermission — no caviar, no champagne, no ice cream in the Majestic lobby. The house was respectable but far from capacity. The curtain rose on a floor-to-ceiling blow-up of the familiar 1916 photograph of Diaghilev in top hat, and out came Lithuanian dancers Olga Konosenko and Nerijus Juska to do the Armide pas de deux, in their Alexandre Benois re-creations looking much like the photos of Pavlova and Nijinsky as Armide and her favorite slave, Konosenko in a pink dress over white tulle, Juska in a pink skirted jacket over knee breeches and white stockings and with a white plumed turban (though here the breeches, in red-and-white hoops, looked more like the bottom of an old-fashioned bathing suit). The pas de deux started out charming and flirtatious, with Konosenko on pointe leaning back into Juska with a coy glance, and grew in flamboyance, but the moves remained modest: a big tour jeté here, a modest manège there, a few fouettés thrown in, the emphasis on graceful arcs and direct expression. It was like commedia dell’arte ballet. At the end, Konosenko and Juska emerged from opposite wings and ran past each other, he whisking a pink tulle scarf from her hands.