“HYMN” Looks Back at the Ballets Russes

Is it possible to recreate a classic from the Ballets Russes’ repertoire and make it palatable for contemporary audiences? It is an arduous task, but on more than a few occasions ballet historians and dance archivists have aided dance companies in this endeavor and the success of their collaborations is easily measured by the box office success of these programs.

Founded in 1909 by the Russian impresario Sergei Diaghilev, the Ballets Russes presented dance works of incredible beauty and innovation, merging the worlds of dance, music, art and fashion.  Diaghilev collaborated with such great artists, musicians and designers as Chagall, Stravinsky, Ravel, Prokofiev, Rimsky-Korsakov, Coco Chanel, Pablo Picasso, Rimbaud, and many others. And the dance works that came out of these collaborations—“Petrouchka,” “Rite of Spring”, “Firebird,” “Les Biches,” “Apollon Musagete,”L’Apres Midi d’un Faune,” “Prince Igor,” and “Les Sylphide”—are legendary.

In the 1980s the Joffrey Ballet had a very successful program of works from the Ballets Russes with its resurrection of Nijinsky’s “Rite of Spring” in 1987. Earlier the Joffrey performed a series of programs with Rudolf Nureyev performing lead roles in the Ballets Russes’ “Petrouchka” and “L’Apres Midi d’un Faune.” American Ballet Theatre has kept some classic Ballets Russes ballets in its repertoire in every recent decade, namely “Les Sylphide,” “The Prodigal Son,” and “Firebird.”

In collaboration with NYU’s The Institute for the Study of the Ancient World (ISAW), Works & Process at the Guggenheim Museum presented Hymn to Apollo: The Ancient World and the Ballets Russes, the first exhibition to focus specifically on the role of ancient world and the Ballets Russes, with costume designers Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung using original Ballets Russes costumes and designs as their point of departure for this Works & Process costume and dance commission featuring Maurice Ravel’s “Daphnis and Chloe.”

That said; this Works & Process commission is not a remounting of the Ballets Russes’ original “Daphnis and Chloe.” This “Daphnis and Chloe” is a working and re-imagining of the classic dance work, seen through the choreography of Christopher Williams and Netta Yerulshamy.

Though both choreographers use excerpts from Ravel’s original score, their approach is quite different from each other and from the original Michel Fokine choreography. Yerulshamy’s choreography is steeped in modern athleticism with occasional references to plastique motifs found in the choreographic movement style of Isadora Duncan. And though Yerulshamy’s work is an abstract interpretation of Ravel’s “Daphnis and Chloe,” you can see the references to Isadora Duncan’s influence of Michel Fokine. Additionally, Harriet Jung’s utilitarian costumes are both versatile, beautiful, as well as free flowing, perfectly aligned and relative to Yerulshamy’s interpretation of the Ravel score.

Christopher Williams chose to focus on the pirate scene from the “Daphnis and Chloe” ballet. Williams’ choreography demonstrated his deft ability to create unencumbered group choreography. Williams has the daunting tasks of creating movement for not only Chloe and the pirates, but nymphs and creatures of Pan.Perhaps, the most interesting part of Williams’ choreography is the parts he created for New York City Ballet principal Sara Mearns. For those not familiar with Mearns celebrated career with the New York City Ballet, Mearns has been given accolades for mastery of most of Balanchine repertoire, and particularly in Balanchine ballets that require virtuosic brilliance.

Christopher Williams’ choreography is a departure from what Sara Mearns gets to perform at the New York City Ballet, even from New York City Ballet’s more modern choreographers that use a hybrid of dance styles. With that in mind, Mearns triumphed in Williams’ choreography, exhibiting and understanding of William’s movement style that was both illuminating and provocative.

Images courtesy of Michelle Tabnick Communications

What stood out most about these two dance works that pay homage to the Ballets Russes’ “Daphnis and Chloe” was how choreographers of the 21st century can draw inspiration from a ballet that is over a hundred years old and rework the dance work in a way that’s palatable to modern audiences while evoking a movement style of the past. The Guggenheim’s Works & Process program should be commended for facilitating such dance scholarship.William S. Gooch

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