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Dancers from Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s Faun. Photogra
Dancers from Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s Faun. Photography by Diego Franssens.

In The Spirit of Diaghilev

Sadler’s Wells marks the centenary of the founding of the legendary Les Ballets Russes, and presents four pieces that pay tribute to Sergei Pavlovich Diaghilev

Sergei Pavlovich Diaghilev (1872-1929) was not a dancer or choreographer, yet his lifelong passion for art led him to found Les Ballets Russes, an ensemble of dancers, composers, designers and artists who came together in the spirit of his famous challenge – “Surprise me!” His outlook revolutionised the modern balletic canon and his legacy resonates across all art forms. Sadler’s Wells in London has presented four of their associate choreographers with the challenge of creating pieces that have some connection with the Les Ballets Russes period, and the collaborative spirit Diaghilev encouraged. In The Spirit of Diaghilev is an innovative rediscovery via works presented by Wayne McGregor, Russel Maliphant, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Javier de Frutos.

Dyad 1909 by McGregor is a ballet inspired by the scientific, social, political and technological perspective of 1909-29, a period rich in experimentation. Here, dancers use minimalist movements mixed with flowing a-syncopated touches, while enhancing the ambiguity and asexuality of the bodies. Composer Ólafur Arnalds provides an emotional score to this astonishing piece, mixing classical symphonies with avant-garde electronic recordings.

Russel Maliphant’s interpretation of Diaghilev’s work in AfterLight is focused on bodywork – on the sense of flow, the energy of movement, and the arcs and circles drawn by Vaslav Nijinsky to represent abstract figures (Nijinsky danced with Diaghilev from 1909 to 1912). Working with light (and using computer technology for animation) he unveils this concept to the audience brilliantly. Daniel Proietto’s incredible body language and remarkable technique demands full attention in this organic and beautiful solo. His disjointed bodywork is astonishing, with top and bottom performing separately as if following opposite pulling forces. Maliphant’s choice of Satie’s Gnossienne is undoubtedly the perfect ally to this living picture.

As far as technicalities go, Faun by Cherkaoui is a masterpiece. There have been many fauns since Nijinsky’s piece but Cherkaoui has tried to faithfully revisit Stéphane Mallarmé’s tale of sexual awakening and the discovery of male and female harmony. Employing transmutational approaches, dancers James O’Hara and Daisy Phillips display challenging stage work. The organic fluidity of this choreography is a delight for the artistic senses and an eye-opener to the capabilities of the physical body.

However, if any of these four choreographers has taken the “Surprise me!” motto to heart, it is definitely Javier de Frutos. In his Eternal Damnation To Sancho And Sanchez he brings the audience to a standstill, with a satirical ballet in three scenes inspired by the works of Jean Cocteau. A ritual tale of death pacts provides the knock-them-dead impact Diaghilev would wish for. Placing this piece at the end of the production provides a mind-blowing closure, as controversial and scandalous yet as seductive as Diaghilev would have offered it.