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Friday, 27 April, 2001, 16:12 GMT 17:12 UK
Sparkling Stravinsky
Photo by Bill Cooper
Leanne Benjamin and Nigel Burley light up the stage
by BBC News Online's Steve Schifferes

The Royal Ballet's revival of three Stravinsky one-act ballets is a striking reminder of the power of modernism in 20th Century dance.

The three pieces are very different, ranging from the flamboyant Firebird - first danced by Margot Fonteyn in London - to the austere Agon, the great vehicle for Arthur Mitchell of the New York City ballet.

But they all share a link to the Russian tradition in dance, as interpreted by the great Russian impressario Diaghilev of the Ballets Russes - a company which played a role in the birth of both the Royal Ballet and the NYC Ballet.

The most successful revival is the Firebird, Stravinksy's first composition which established his fame.

Leanne Benjamin and Nigel Burley (picture by Bill Cooper)
Australian prima ballerina Leanne Benjamin makes a fine Firebird

First produced in 1910 by Diaghalov, and choreographed by Mikhail Fokine, its spectacular costumes and extravagant sets are faithfully reproduced by the Royal Ballet's workshops.

Fantasy world

The costumes, by the great Russian designer Natalia Gontcharova, reflect the fantasy world of the dance's dream sequence, involving a magician who tries to cast his evil spell on the Tsarevich.

Australian prima ballerina Leanne Benjamin makes a fine Firebird, full of fire and passion.

She is ably supported by David Drew as the magician Kostchei and Nigel Burley as the Tsarevich.

Also beautifully realised is Agon, Stravinksy's last ballet, composed for George Balanchine, the great choreographer of the New York City Ballet - who also started his career with the Ballets Russes.

In sharp contrast to The Firebird, Agon is an abstract, plotless ballet, danced in plain costumes against a blue backdrop.

His partner in the pas de deux is Zenaida Yanowsky, the French-born ballerina whose long limbs languidly wrap around Mr Acosta

The music is modernist too, atonal rather than derived from the Russian folk tradition.

But the choreography matches the music perfectly, with a series of interlocking duets and triplets for two men and two women.

The piece is fortunate to have the great Carlos Acosta, the Cuban star who left his homeland to join the Houston Ballet, in the lead.

His partner in the pas de deux is Zenaida Yanowsky, the French-born ballerina whose long limbs languidly wrap around Mr Acosta.

Less successful are some of the other ballerinas, who cannot quite reproduce the crispness of the Balanchine style - with its long leg extensions and slow turns - despite the presence of Mr Balanchine's anointed successor, Patricia Neary, in supervising the production.

Mr Yanowsky also takes the lead in the third Stravinksy revival, the Russian folk ballet Les Noces (The Wedding), based on peasant wedding ceremonies - religious and secular.

The haunting Stravinsky score - for four pianos and four singers - reflects the religious origin of the ceremonies.

Dated choreography

The choreography, however, by Nijinksa (Nijinsky's sister) for the Ballets Russes, now seems dated, with ensemble peasant dances and a grouping of bodies to form abstract shapes on stage.

Nijinska reportedly rejected the spectacular costume designs of Natalia Gontcharova for the original ballet, instead opting for a neo-classical and austere peasant dress.

Its classical style crossed over to influence the first generation of modern dancers like Martha Graham.

Overall, the programme is a delight - demonstrating Stravinsky's remarkable range and the adaptability of his music for the stage.

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