Andris Liepa, the director of the Diaghilev Festival, talks about his ballet 'restoration' work ahead of Thursday's performance at the Emirates Palace.
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It is not a discipline that one associates with rebellion and controversy. Indeed, the frothy tutus, satin slippers and technical precision of ballet are the very model of high classical European culture. Yet 100 years ago, the Ballets Russes, a loose company of Russian dancers, choreographers, musicians and designers, brought a storm of innovation to Paris and western Europe, even inciting a near-riot at one scandalous performance, and fostering creative collaborations that were extraordinary.
Through the productions of the impresario Diaghilev - a polymath who had studied music, art and law - and his long-term partners Alexandre Benois and the artist and designer Léon Bakst, the world was to discover the revolutionary choreography of Petipa, Nijinsky and Balanchine, sets and designs by Picasso and Coco Chanel, and music by Satie, Prokofiev, Ravel and Stravinsky, among others.
This touring company would change the course of dance, music and set design, pioneering the expressionist, the avant-garde and the abstract in a cultural world that still predominantly enjoyed the elegantly romantic 19th-century ballets - as we do today. Indeed, for many people, the juddering, clashing chords of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring still shock, and those who revel in the carefully turned out toes and delicately arched arms of classical ballet may still find the freeness of Nijinsky's choreography (or what we know of it from the evidence we have) jarring.
It seems strange that the works of such an influential movement can be so little known and appreciated a century later, and it is probably as much a consequence of the 20th century's turbulent history as the company's own fragmentary existence. This was the thinking that led the former ballet star Andris Liepa to attempt a rediscovery of the Ballets Russes' performances. Alongside the choreographer Robert Joffrey, Liepa is credited with having restored these performances to their former glory while remaining faithful to them in every detail possible, from the music to the costumes to the sets and choreography.
Sixty dancers from the Kremlin Ballet Theatre, including principals from the Bolshoi, will perform Russian Seasons of the XXI Century in Abu Dhabi on Thursday evening in the Emirates Palace auditorium, a choice that echoes Diaghilev's original aim to bring Russia's contemporary creative talent to the world's attention.
"The Russian Seasons first started in 1906 when he brought over a beautiful portrait exhibition, causing quite a sensation," says Liepa, who is the director of the Diaghilev Festival. "Three years later he brought the Russian ballet to the West, with performances including Cleopatra, and it was an incredible success."
A century on, Diaghilev's work still resonates with audiences today, says Liepa. "Our company celebrated his centenary just two years ago and we haven't stopped touring with his work in Paris, London, Rome and Madrid since."
For the company's UAE debut, Liepa has selected two masterpieces from Diaghilev's repertoire: Chopiniana by Frédéric Chopin and Polovets Dances by Alexander Borodin.
"This is such a great opportunity for Russia to deliver something exciting and unique to the young and ambitious capital city," he says.
But what of that shock-inducing choreography, which was rarely notated and one would think impossible to replicate?
"The dances and steps are as true as we could make them. There are some pictures but of course we never had video of the original to compare it with. So we have worked closely with previous generations of dancers and the steps have been transferred, as we say, 'leg-to-leg' and the legacy has been handed down through the years."
For Diaghilev - who worked with Debussy, Rimsky-Korsakov and his most notable composer-collaborator Igor Stravinsky - music was the most important component of the performances, says Liepa; Diaghilev was convinced that without the perfect score, his ballets were doomed to failure.
Unlike the choreography, the music requires no guesswork. Liepa says: "We haven't changed it at all. We're using a soundtrack of the original score, which has been beautifully recorded by the St Petersburg state orchestra."
He lavished the same attention on the Russian Seasons' costumes, commissioning hand-stitched replicas of the originals, including ruffled tutus weighted with glinting jewels, feathered headdresses and beaded tunics with gold brocade. "Many of the original costumes are now museum pieces," Liepa comments.
As for the sets for this particular performance in the Middle East, there's a distinctly modern twist.
"We keep all our sets in Moscow and normally we take them with us on tour," he explains. "However, we require theatres with very high ceilings to allow the sets to move up and down between acts. So instead, we're bringing backdrops modelled on the original Benois sets for Chopiniana and, for the Polovets Dances, ones designed by [the Russian artist] Nickolas Roerich. They are hand-painted canvases, huge romantic tableaus of landscapes. We'll also have onstage a big portrait of Diaghilev himself - an enlarged replica of a painting from around 1909."
Far from seeing a venue's restricted space as an obstacle to staging future large-scale productions, Liepa relishes the challenge of customising classic ballets to fit contemporary surroundings.
"I'd love to come back and create something entirely modern, specific to the facilities here.
"If the UAE decides to build a large theatre that could accommodate a full-length ballet, we'd love to come and open it."
While the UAE does not yet boast a ballet stage, audiences are likely to give Diaghilev's Festival in Abu Dhabi a far warmer reception than it received in France in the early 1900s.
"He blew up the art world and created a great scandal! When the Ballets Russes performed Le Sacre du Printemps at the Théatre des Champs-Élysées in Paris, the audience was booing. It was a huge shock - they weren't ready for the modern music or modern steps. They played only four performances because of that."
How proud Diaghilev would be to see his ballets the toast of the 21st century, muses Liepa.
"I feel I have a duty to restore what I can of the 'Golden Age', as I call it. I'm just a restorer - Diaghilev was the revolutionary. I simply believe that ballet is my destiny and that's why I'm directing now."
Liepa was born in 1962, into a prominent artistic family: his mother was an acclaimed actress in Moscow and his father Maris became a Bolshoi legend.
"Russian ballet dancers are not one-dimensional - they are actors and all-round performers too," he says. "For example, in his prime, when my father danced in London, they called him the Laurence Olivier of ballet because of his acting abilities. That's why Russian ballet is so popular and has endured."
Ballet continues to be a family affair for the Liepas, and though Andris has now hung up his ballet shoes, his younger sister Ilze will be performing in Abu Dhabi this week.
With Russia's first-class reputation for ballet, you'd be forgiven for thinking that's where the dance form originated, when in fact it was born in Italy.
"Companies like the Bolshoi and Kirov have helped keep ballet alive," says Liepa. "Ballet has always been incredibly popular in Russia because even back in Diaghilev's time it was heavily subsidised, and although today we see budgets for the arts being slashed around the world, that will never happen in my country."
For Italy to keep opera and Russia to lay claim to ballet seems fair to Liepa. After all, he says with a twinkle: "Ballet was only actually there to keep the opera from being too boring in the first place!"
Liepa is hopeful that the Russian prima ballerinas and principals of tomorrow will seek to preserve these arts as Diaghilev did and he himself has done.
"In Russia, we have many great traditions and the next generation is growing up fast. If they choose ballet, many will go to the West and they will, I hope, come back."