wed 03/03/2021

Diaghilev and Nijinsky Rise Again at Sadler's Wells | reviews, news & interviews

Diaghilev and Nijinsky Rise Again at Sadler's Wells

Diaghilev and Nijinsky Rise Again at Sadler's Wells

A clutch of new dance creations inspired by old ghosts

A century ago Sergei Diaghilev launched the Ballets Russes, the crucible where modern lyric and dance theatre was born. Picasso and Matisse jostled against Nijinsky, Debussy and Markova, Satie and Cocteau against Fokine, Stravinsky and Pavlova. Tomorrow the spirit of Diaghilev is invoked in the premiere at Sadler's Wells, London, of four new dances by today’s leading choreographers.


Russell Maliphant: AfterLight


nijinsky_drawingISMENE BROWN: What object or image would you say most captures for you the spirit of Diaghilev?

RUSSELL MALIPHANT: I’ve worked with a lot of photographs of Nijinsky, but also with some of his drawings and it’s one of those that I’d choose. It’s a dancer, I would say - an abstract figurative work but a dancer with circling limbs (picture right, Nijinsky's 'Dancer' 1917/18, © Stiftung John Neumeier - Dance Collection). The limbs are drawn as arcs of movement, and he did a lot of these circle drawings. I read a biography of Nijinsky, some 25 years ago or so, and I had a memory of these drawings from back then.

I had difficulty finding them again. The way they were in my memory was not how they were in the books I looked in. Then Jane Pritchard [Victoria and Albert Museum theatre curator] sent me some pictures, and one of them was exactly what I wanted to work with, kind of like when you see a figure in low light and they move their limbs fast, you get a blur of light - you see those kind of arcs of movement in the picture. Francis Bacon pictures have movement in the same way.

What was the first contact about this work?

Alistair Spalding [Sadler's Wells artistic director] asked me if there would be something from that time that would interest me. I knew I didn’t want to do a narrative piece, or a remake of Rite of Spring or Faun or something. I’ve been wanting to work with light again, and I felt that working with light was a way of bringing these brushstrokes to life.

You know if this drawing was done when Nijinsky was ill in the sanatorium?

I don’t know... and in a way it doesn’t bother me. There are some very dark ones he did then, much more static and more bleak. This drawing is particularly active, and quite light. I haven’t gone for his tortured state, or his withdrawal from his previous existence as a dancer. I’ve really gone for the sculptural, painterly, figurative information I could get from photos of him and his drawings.

He was quite a sturdy chap.

Yes, but there’s such a sculptural awareness in all the photos, I find. The line has changed in classical dance over the years, arms being extended more. There's more outward reach now, so that you have less bend, less folds in the body, those folds that you would put into sculpture so that the weight is falling into one hip and the shoulders are twisted another way, with a kink in the waist - there is a different flow from high to low. In classical line now we probably go for something that is more geometric, and have less complex lines, so you have the line of the hand following the line of the forearm. I find those folds, that play of line and fold, interesting.

Your own training heritage is ballet - you were in Sadler's Wells Ballet before you moved to contemporary choreography. DId you dance any Ballets Russes work?

I danced the Blackamoor in Petrushka. You never lose what you've done before, and a lot of that lingers with the spirals around the body. Our Cecchetti training at the Royal Ballet School had a lot of that. When I look at the old photographs, or look at sculpture of the past, those principles seem to connect.

With light now we can paint on stage in a way that wasn't done in those times, so we started with the light, before even doing the choreography

You've made a solo in this piece - is there any element that is a deliberate homage to Diaghilev's time?

No, I wouldn’t say that. They had those beautiful designs by Bakst or Picasso, those kind of collaborations. But now we have a chance to paint with light, and see how figures move in that light. I've been working with Michael Hulls, the lighting designer, for a long time, and wanted to think with light - with light now we can paint on stage in a way that wasn’t done in those times. So we started from the beginning with the light, before even doing the choreography.

What about Diaghilev? What did he mean for you?

Very much in terms of making all the bridges, the links. Finding ways to bring those people together, and maintaining something that enticed people to work in those collaborations. Think of the great people involved in those relatively few years. It’s remarkable. There are incredible pieces of music. I mean, Afternoon of a Faun and Rite of Spring and Petrushka are remarkable pieces, as scores. And the photos, the visual images, you have of Spectre de la Rose, Faun.

But you did choose your music from that time.

It’s Eric Satie’s Gnossiennes 1, 2, 3 and 4. At first I was making a trio, working with a score that Andy Cowton was writing, and as things developed with the light, it seemed that the strongest things that were coming out with that were the solo parts, and the weight of the music seemed to colour it a certain way that worked better for the trio parts of the material. So I started wondering what else might be right for it, or which direction to take for music that worked with it.

And one night I was sat on the sofa with Dana [Fouras, Maliphant's wife], and someone sent her a Facebook message that had this music on, and I was sitting at the computer editing the choreographic material, half-listening to Dana’s thing, and it suddenly was clear that this music worked very well with it - there was a certain delicacy that had been eluding us. And then I suddenly thought he did Parade for the Ballets Russes. That was a lucky collision. All due to Facebook. I love finding something like that!


Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui: Faun


nijinsky-awardISMENE BROWN: What do you think of as the spirit of Diaghilev - is it a person, or an aura of style, or perhaps just a period of time?

SIDI LARBI CHERKAOUI: My impression is that it is all of the above; there's always certain people who become representatives of a certain time period, of certain ideas, who are the face of a certain style. It helps create order in the chaos of time and reality to put them as pillars or references, especially when one is looking back at a previous period in time.

Is it that easy to make a connection from a century later to that period & the way people thought then about dance?

In a way, yes. The thing is, it was a very creative time, with a lot of things invented or reinvented; I feel if one realises that, the connection with now is easily made.

What does this object that you've chosen say to you about that spirit, this award based on Rodin's statuette of Nijinsky?

I was awarded it in Monaco [2003 Nijinsky Awards], and for me the image of Rodin's statue stays one of my first references. There is also a picture of Nijinsky jumping (one of the few ones ever taken of him doing that) that I also liked when I was younger.

My impression is that Nijinsky had the kind of success when young that is almost impossible to imagine today - and also that he had in Diaghilev the kind of dynamic and devoted patron you couldn't really imagine now.  I guess being in love had something to do with it, but also Diaghilev offered the kind of personal mentoring that creators today would be amazed to receive.

Yes and no. The relationship they had is their own, we might only hear the myths and rumours about it, but I do think that behind every artist today there is a team of people who care very much and are eager to help out the creative process as much as possible. And theatres who push them into collaborations and give way to interesting connections.

Nijinsky's success is in that way also not so unique. Without wanting to be disrespectful, quite the contrary, I do know a lot of incredible dancers like Sylvie Guillem, Carlos Acosta, and choreographers, Akram Khan, Russell Maliphant, who are having the same kind of media or public attention. Perhaps even more so, since in these times information travels so quickly with the internet, much more is written and known than ever before.

His unexpected ballets were personal ritualistic propositions very much like Picasso's drawings, inspired by far-away cultures, in a context that really wanted something totally different

What are you trying to evoke of all this in your creation for this programme? Is there a particular line or image from the Mallarmé poem?

I'm taking it as a point of departure, I'm not trying to evoke any particular line. The duet is coloured by a sense of magic, something impressionistic, and an animal sensuality, devoid of anger or frustration. At least that's what I tried to convey with James and Daisy.

Describe your work and what vision you wanted to create. Which processes came first, dance, music, design? Do they depend on each other?

Music first - Debussy was a starting point. Then came the dancers - first, as the faun James O'Hara, and Daisy Phillips as the Nymph. We started creating dance material which was very animal-movement inspired, then felt we wanted the piece to interact with contemporary sounds. I invited Nitin [Sawhney] to complete the score, create two moments of separation of the original track - not to lay a layer over, but next to the Debussy music.

Hussein Chalayan's essential and very kind design completed the bodies of the dancers. I worked with Adam on the lights to find the ideal background, something like a forest of light, light of a forest. That's kind of the order of the creation in three sentences!

Why are you not dancing it yourself?

For me James is the ideal Faun. I would not do a better job, and I'm a firm believer that the right person needs to be at the right place. When the proposition came from Sadler's I thought of him immediately as the Faun. It was a natural decision for me.

Why is it always Nijinsky who fascinates people from that time? He does have a mythology of his own - his story, on the surface, is of a fantastically successful young classical prodigy who made three totally unexpected ballets and then went mad and lived a long silent life after that.

I agree, Nijinsky is the one we are drawn to first. For many reasons, I guess. His madness is, if you go into it - especially as a choreographer - one you can relate to. I had read his biographies and remember feeling so sad, realising this man was trying to be absolutely honest in a world that did not want his absolute honesty, they wanted a certain part of him, but not everything.

His unexpected ballets were personal ritualistic propositions very much like Picasso's drawings, inspired by exotic and far-away cultures, in a context that really wanted something totally different. Yet he did what his instincts told him to do. This is quite an incredible thing to do, and I guess I admire him for that. He followed his heart, and paid a huge price for that.


Javier de Frutos: Eternal Damnation to Sancho & Sanchez


jcocteau_maryJAVIER DE FRUTOS: I took it for granted that of the four of us in this programme I’ll be the one who doesn’t play safe. I said, typecast again! This piece I’m making is set to Ravel’s La Valse, which is a danse macabre, and being so macabre deals with the darker side of Diaghilev, but also because he loved the succès de scandale. I think Diaghilev loved to do that deliberately. Jean Cocteau said every time Diaghilev did “naughty” ballets, such as Parade, he was giggling his ass off outside the theatre hearing people booing. He knew controversy would be an insurance to make people come to the ballet. And it’s interesting he’d put on the same evening the Rite of Spring, the scandal, and then Apollo, which he knew guaranteed a standing ovation. The semi-manipulation of the audience, knowing how to move the emotional psyche of the spectators, he knew very well.

So what image did you start with?

Sometimes the best way to research is to go backwards, and in some ways my Diaghilev research started with his tomb in San Michele in Venice. It’s just across the water from St Mark’s, and there is something highly romantic about that cemetery altogether because of the amount of artists there - just around the corner from Diaghilev is Stravinsky. I took a picnic there, a bottle of prosecco with a couple of friends right by the tomb, with the smell of the cypresses. It’s high romance, because we know Diaghilev died penniless, but his best friend Coco Chanel paid for the trip to San Michele by boat and did the burial in fabulous style as if to say “I don’t have a penny but I’ll do it high style anyway.”

But the other inspiration is Cocteau, who is the imaginary collaborator in my piece and very much a disciple of Diaghilev. There is a church in Soho, Notre Dame de France, next to the Prince Charles cinema, which in 1959 commissioned Cocteau to do the murals - they’re all handdrawn and beautifully done by him. It showed that even as an older man he was pushing the envelope. What I like about it is that the Roman Catholic Church commissioned a wellknown homosexual activist to do this, and the other is that from the knees down of the cross you can’t see the whole figure, you see only bits and bobs of the Mary Magdalene and the Virgin (pictured above), but you do see a lot of homoerotic emphases in the Roman soldiers, most of whom look like Jean Marais. It’s a subversive way to humanise those Roman soldiers, which really hadn’t happened before. He has a beautiful free-flowing drawing hand and there’s a great interest in buttocks and nipples. It’s not the best Cocteau I’ve ever seen, but it shows that even in the last days of his life he was still trying to push the envelope.

My piece is Grand Guignol. If Diaghilev was alive I don’t think he would ever have embraced minimalism. There is obviously blood, lots of grand music

Did the Roman Catholic Church notice?

I don’t know! But it’s extraordinary. You go there and see this church being furtively rediscovered by the homosexual community under the scrutiny of the grumpy nuns who are in charge of the gift shop - you really feel you are in the Sixties spying on some furtive homo activity in Soho. It’s fun to go, definitely.

And your piece?

It’s called Eternal Damnation to Sancho and Sanchez. I have made a very loose scenario, trying to channel how Jean Cocteau would write a ballet scenario. It’s like a poème tragique - a satirical ballet in three acts - that kind of thing. There are fictitious mythical characters. Six dancers: I’m using Apollo and the Three Muses - who are pregnant - and putting them into a fictional situation. Then I have also a deformed Pope and an altar boy. It’s a confrontation between the two faiths - the Greek mythology of beauty and the RC Church.

What does it look like?

Grand guignol, operatic, very grand. If Diaghilev was alive I don’t think he would ever have embraced minimalism. There is obviously blood, lots of grand music - La Valse. One thing he was fantastic at was embracing travel, refining lovely things and exotica through Western eyes. I think Diaghilev was a really indulgent producer, and so it’s right for us to try to indulge. The music is being played live by a full orchestra. The whole idea of making Michael Hulls a real collaborator was partly because Diaghilev never used lighting collaborators then as the technique wasn’t advanced. I think today he would certainly consider Michael a designer in his own right.

And the costumes are designed by Katrina Lindsay to channel Cocteau to a point. Cocteau famously wrote a lot of scenarios for Diaghilev and designed posters, but never actually designed a ballet for him. Diaghilev commissioned Ravel to do La Valse but said though this was beautiful music, he couldn’t see it as a ballet. So I think maybe Diaghilev at 100 years old would say, “Okay, kids, let’s do it now.”

  • In the Spirit of Diaghilev is at Sadler's Wells Theatre London this week till Saturday. Book online here. Touring information will follow. The theatre is warning that there are scenes of adult nature and violence in de Frutos's work.
  • Read the review here

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