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Culture news, 20.10.2009 16:50

Lord of the dance

Sergei Diaghilev The biggest international arts festival St. Petersburg has seen for some time got underway at the beginning of this week.

One hundred years ago, the talented Russian impresario and dedicated patron of the arts Sergei Diaghilev took Europe by storm with his Russian Seasons – a combination of Russian ballet, art and music presented to audiences in Paris, London and other European capitals. The centenary is being celebrated with the Diaghilev P.S. festival, a suitably diverse showcase of arts and culture, including ballet performances, concerts, art exhibitions and conferences.

“The main aim of the festival is to bring Diaghilev’s name back to Russia,” said Natalya Metelitsa, the festival’s artistic director.

Diaghilev’s name is closely connected with that of St. Petersburg. As a young man, he moved to the imperial capital from Perm to study law, but soon began taking music lessons at the St. Petersburg Conservatory as well as at the university. He was one of the founders of the Mir Iskusstva (World of Art) movement, as well as the publisher of the eponymous journal at the turn of the 20th century.

Diaghilev began his self-declared mission of taking Russian culture abroad in 1906 with an exhibition of Russian art in Paris. The next year he returned to Paris with concerts of Russian music, followed a year later with Russian opera. The Ballets Russes premiered in the French capital the next year with a dance troupe that included Anna Pavlova, Vaslav Nijinsky and Tamara Karsavina.

During his lifetime, Diaghilev brought together an unprecedented wealth of musicians, dancers and artists. Ballet scores and operas were composed for him by Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Debussy, Ravel, Satie and Richard Strauss, while choreographers included Mikhail Fokin, Nijinsky and later, George Balanchine. Exotic, evocative sets were designed by the leading artists of the time, including Nikolai Roerich, Alexander Benois, Leon Bakst and later Pablo Picasso. Diaghilev’s quest to break with tradition and establish original directions in the field of ballet influenced its development for decades after his death in 1929.

The Diaghilev. P.S. festival opened on Monday evening with performances by the Hamburg Ballet, whose director and chief choreographer John Neumeier is one of the festival’s key figures.

“Since I was 11 years old, I have been fascinated by this very important era of Diaghilev and by dance, which I always knew I was called to,” Neumeier said at a press conference devoted to the festival on Monday. “This era, which produced so many important new scores written for ballet – probably the most since the 18th century – was a very important time for me.”

Much of the U.S.-born choreographer’s work has focused on the life and work of the great dancer and choreographer Nijinsky, who was at various points the protege and lover of Diaghilev.

Both Monday and Tuesday saw performances at the Alexandriinsky Theater of a trio of Neumeier ballets devoted to Nijinsky: “Le Pavillon d’Armide,” “Vaslav” and “Le Sacre.” Local audiences were the first outside Hamburg to see “Le Pavillon d’Armide,” which premiered there earlier this year.

Fittingly, “Le Pavillon d’Armide” was the title of the first ballet performed by the Ballets Russes one hundred years ago. Neumeier was however quick to explain that his latest production is not an attempt to recreate the original ballet, but a completely new version.

“It is a lost work,” the choreographer said of Fokin’s forgotten work, which was choreographed to a score by Nikolai Tcherepnin. “There is no complete recording of ‘Le Pavillon d’Armide.’”

Neumeier’s ballet does, however, take its inspiration from the original, in which a young man shelters from a storm in a pavilion, where a tapestry of the enchantress Armide hangs. In his dreams, the young man is transported to the world of Armide and falls in love with her. When he awakes, he finds himself back in the pavilion – holding Armide’s scarf.

“I have tried to combine the essential idea of the story – spending a night in a strange place, with a picture representative of another time, and dreaming oneself into this time,” said Neumeier.

Neumeier’s production takes as its starting point an event from the life of Nijinsky. The dancer, who suffered from severe mental health problems later in life, arrives at a Swiss sanatorium with his wife, only to find Benois’ painting of Armide’s garden hanging in his room.

“This, as in the original ballet, makes the main character, Nijinsky, go into a series of memories,” said Neumeier. “Characters from the past appear and reappear; fragments of his colleagues, like Tamara Karsavina, become part of this dream.”

The unstable mental state of the ballet’s hero was perfectly captured by the nervous, jerky, almost involuntary movements of the principal dancer, Otto Bubenicek, which contrasted with the fluid, dreamlike quality of the figures from his past, whose costumes and even, in parts, choreography recreated the original ballet, in which Nijinsky had danced as a young man.

“Vaslav,” the second ballet performed, was the first ballet written by Neumeier to be devoted to the life and work of Nijinsky. Created in 1979, the ballet is set to music by J. S. Bach, and depicts a scene described by Nijinsky’s wife in which the choreographer listened to Bach being played on a grand piano and began to improvise to the music.

The final ballet performed Monday and Tuesday was “Le Sacre,” which takes its name and score from Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” (“Le Sacre du Printemps”). The 1913 premiere of the original ballet in Paris, as part of the Russian Seasons, went down in history for causing a near riot. Members of the audience, shocked by the discordant music and violent, graceless choreography, hissed and booed so loudly that the dancers could not hear the music. Diaghilev, who was far from averse to a succes de scandale, was reportedly delighted, and “The Rite of Spring” remained one of his favorite ballets.

St. Petersburg audiences on Tuesday proved far more receptive to Neumeier’s ballet, which premiered in 1972, giving the choreographer an extended standing ovation and prompting numerous curtain calls.

Tuesday also saw a concert at the Shostakovich Philharmonic titled “Homage to Diaghilev,” featuring arias and duets from Russian operas connected with the Russian Seasons, including those by Rimsky-Korsakov, Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky and Borodin.

Those who missed the beginning of the festivities should not despair, however, as the festival has plenty more to offer, including a plethora of art exhibitions. Two opened at the State Hermitage museum on Wednesday: “Dance. For the centenary of Diaghilev’s Russian Seasons,” showcasing portrayals of dance from the turn of the 20th century, including works by Degas and Matisse, and “George Kolbe: Drawings in Blue Ink,” comprising drawings of female figures in motion by the German sculptor Kolbe, who was fascinated by the Ballets Russes and sketched both Nijinsky and Karsavina in his studio.

A third installation, titled: “Diaghilev. Beginning,” which opened Thursday at the Russian Museum, focuses on Diaghilev’s early projects, such as a vast, all-encompassing portrait exhibition of historical Russian figures organized by Diaghilev at St. Petersburg’s Tauride Palace in 1905, as well as portraits of the impresario himself.

Two more exhibitions devoted to the Silver Age of Russian culture are due to open this week as part of the festival. “Le Spectre de la Danse. A Century Later,” which opens Friday at the Samoilov apartment museum, will showcase drawings of legendary ballet dancers by the contemporary graphic artist Alla Buryakova, including a series devoted to Nijinsky, while the Russian Ethnography museum will host an exhibition titled “Inspired by the Silver Age” showcasing artifacts and costumes from the collection of the city’s Theatrical and Musical Arts museum, as well as contemporary jewelry and porcelain inspired by the period.

On Friday, students of the city’s Vaganova Ballet Academy will give a concert at the Hermitage Theater featuring choreographic miniatures and excerpts of ballets by Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky and other composers. The dance academy, then known as the Imperial Theatrical School, trained many of the dancers and choreographers who went on to star in the Ballets Russes.

Also Friday, St. Petersburg State University will host a conference focusing on Diaghilev, the World of Art movement and Ballets Russes, to be continued the following day at the St. Petersburg House of Music.

The week of festivities ends Monday with a gala concert by ballet stars from all around the world at the Alexandriinsky Theater. The program includes Russian choreographer Alexei Ratmansky’s ballet “Russian Seasons” performed by Moscow’s Bolshoi Ballet. There will not be any shortage of homegrown talent, however, with performances by the Mariinsky’s Uliana Lopatkina, Diana Vishneva, Irma Nioradze and many others.

The festival’s organizers hope to make it a biennial event, ensuring the legacy of Diaghilev would return to the city in 2011 and for many years to come.

Both exhibitions at the Hermitage run through Jan. 17, 2010.

“Diaghilev. Beginning.” runs through March 10, 2010.

News source: The St. Petersburg Times

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