I'm (very) late in posting about an enjoyable evening I had over a week ago, at the "Russian Revel" benefit for the upcoming Ballets Russes 2009 festival (which will be held next May). The cause is certainly a worthy one; it would be hard, in fact, to think of a company more worthy of commemoration than Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, which was, to put it simply, not just a crucible of twentieth-century ballet, but a crucible of modernism in general, in which Debussy, Stravinsky, and Ravel rubbed shoulders with Picasso, Braque and Bakst, choreographers Fokine and Balanchine, and dancers Pavlova and Nijinsky (among many, many others).
The original idea for the evening, it seems, was to evoke the premiere of the Ballets Russes in Paris in 1909 - but despite the looming image of Diaghilev upstage, this seemed merely a ruse for including all things Russes. Only the first number was closely linked to that original opening night, and said pas de deux, from Le Pavillon d'Armide, a forgotten piece "reconstructed" by Jurius Smoriginas, proved charming, but little more (although it was danced with a light, buoyant simplicity by Olga Konosenko and Nerijus Juska). Intriguingly, however, Le Pavillon looked more dated than moderne: the candy-colored costuming recalled turn-of-the-century bathing attire gone commedia, and the choreography wouldn't have looked out of place in The Nutcracker. Would much of the coming centennial look the same way?
Well, we couldn't ponder that long, because, for some reason, the distinguished poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko came next, even though he really has nothing to do with the Ballets Russes - even if, towering as he does literally as well as figuratively over Russian poetry, he was most welcome. Yevtushenko, who currently divides his time between Russia, New York, and the University of Tulsa, of all places, proved a sly raconteur, as well as a poignantly expressive reader of his own verse (so expressive, in fact, that he made the provided translations almost superfluous). Nattily attired in lightly clashing pastels, the poet let his wryly ingratiating manner belie the edge sliding beneath the surface of such sardonic poems as "The City of Yes and No," and "I Live in the Country of Sort Of" (a sly poke at American moral complacency) before suddenly dropping the smiling mask entirely in a bitter condemnation of the murderous Putin regime.
We were quite far, by now, from the proto-modernism of the gay, fey Sergei, but the program attempted to stagger back in his direction with arias from Borodin, Feodor Chaliapin, and Mussorgsky. Of these, the Chaliapin (whom I'm unfamiliar with), while perhaps the weakest pieces in musical terms, nevertheless made the best impression, via the deep colors and dramatic power of baritone Anton Belov's earthy pipes. But the programmers had saved the best for last (and one sensed somehow they knew it), with Georgian prima ballerina Nina Ananiashvili's interpretation of Fokine's "Dying Swan." This piece, after years of over-embellishment (and the ministrations of such artistes as the Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo), now hovers somewhere near self-parody, but Ananiashvili took a surprisingly effective, straightforward, un-self-conscious approach. Her line was appropriately sinuous, but weighted, as she mutely sank ever closer to the earth. There was no self-pity here, merely loss - and if the celebration next summer can tap into something like her level of craft, it should be one for the history books.