Royal Ballet's salute to Stravinsky, musical revolutionary of the dance world
London — The brilliant splendors of a fairy tale Tsar and Tsarina in ''The Firebird'' . . . the deep despair of the underworld of Greek mythology in ''Orpheus'' . . . the austere Russian peasant wedding of ''Les Noces.'' . . .
These are the three ballets that London's Royal Ballet chose to celebrate the centenary of Igor Stravinsky's birth, near St. Petersburg (now Leningrad), on June 17, 1882 - and to illustrate part of the profound effect Stravinsky had on the world of dance in this century.
He gave ballet a new dimension, breaking away from the fluid and lyrical style of the man he greatly admired - fellow countryman Peter Tchaikovsky, whose music flowed in balletic harmony from Petipa step to Petipa step.
Stravinsky produced music that was on equal terms with the dancing. Whereas Tchaikovsky's music could be played to fill in the gaps in the choreography, Stravinsky's - full of unexpected sounds, harsh, crashing, and dissonant - set dancers free from the 32 fouettes-and-tulle-tutu image and inspired a new kind of choreography and movement.
It was (and is) not to everyone's taste. Traditionalists will always prefer older tempos and familiar patterns, a la ''Sleeping Beauty.''
Yet Stravinsky and the great Russian ballet master Sergei Diaghilev also combined elements of classicism with freer and at times more jarring rhythms and moves. The combination broke new ground, and gave such legendary dancers as Nijinsky and Karsarvina striking new opportunities.
Ballet in Russia in the early 1900s was stagnant. Although the dancers were the best in the world, with a tremendous reservoir of talent, choreographer Petipa was an old man, and there was no other great outlet for developing Russian skills.
Onto this scene burst Diaghilev, taking several dancers on tour in the West and introducing Pavlova as well as Nijinsky and Karsarvina. Stravinsky supplied the galvanizing music, so far from the gavottes, waltzes, and mazurkas of his contemporaries.
Unlike many other composers, Stravinsky was committed to ballet and enjoyed creating music for it - from the exotic ''Firebird,'' to the bustle of the lenten fair in ''Petrushka,'' to ''The Rite of Spring'' which caused such a scandal in its premiere - and on to ''Les Noces,'' which Leonard Bernstein says is just about the most Russian piece of music he knows.
Stravinsky was approached by Diaghilev to do ballet music after the composer had been tutored by Rimsky-Korsakov for three years. ''The Firebird'' was the result.
It was an instant success when performed by the Ballet Russes in Paris in 1910 with Tamara Karsarvina as the Firebird, Michel Fokine as Prince Ivan, and Alexander Bulgakov as the sinister Kastchei.
Based on an old Russian folk tale, the ballet had everything an audience of that time looked for - a handsome prince and a beautiful princess, hordes of people in spectacular costume, an evil villain, a dazzling pageant at the finale , musical themes conjuring up mystery and romance, the flutterings of the bird, and the arrival of the magician's weird creatures.
The Royal Ballet production here in London was a faithful reconstruction of the original ballet. Bright costumes against plain backgrounds made it all come alive, like an animated Palekh box (the papier-mache ornamental boxes whose black paint is engraved with gold and other colors by skilled artists using a wolf's tooth).
The Royal Ballet's ''Les Noces'' was the one staged by Nijinsky's sister Nijinska, who was invited to do so by Sir Frederick Ashton in 1966. Described as a cantata with dances, ''Les Noces'' depicts ancient Russian peasant marriage rituals. It combines slow, traditional steps, stylized movements, and surges of action, with dancers stamping and then jumping with heels tucked beneath them.
Stravinsky collected and adapted the text from folk songs and popular verse, together with traditional invocations and blessings. Much is demanded of everyone, from dancer to musician in the pit (where Stravinsky uses four pianos, four soloists, tympani, and percussion). ''Les Noces'' is a difficult ballet to dance, because of the many layers of rhythms running through it simultaneously, but the Royal Ballet was splendid in its attack and precision.
The ballet was still a surprise to some people in the box next to mine, however, who were expecting a nice, pageantlike wedding similar to ''The Firebird.'' They winced at the ''no introduction'' piercing soprano voice which opened up with a xylophone and piano.
Curtains pulled back to reveal a tableau of the bride and her friends, who were dressed alike in earth-brown gym-slips, white blouses, and brown pointe shoes, with their heads bound up in brown scarves. The bride wore a white scarf and had exceptionally long tresses, and she sang about the troubles of grooming them. The words were in Russian, giving the cantata a deeper and more soulful sound.
Between these two contrasting ballets was a new production, ''Orpheus,'' by principal choreographer Kenneth Macmillan. The music was composed in 1948 for a young Russian emigre named George Balanchine, who had founded a company in New York, and the work began a partnership between Stravinsky and Balanchine which some have compared, in its own way, with the work of Tchaikovsky and Petipa. (Balanchine's New York City Ballet had its own celebrations of the centenary, with 11 new ballets set to his music, 13 ballets from the repertoire, two revivals, and incidentals - for nine days of Stravinsky and his work.)
Macmillan's ''Orpheus'' was made up of seven scenes and had in the title role the Danish-born and trained Peter Schaufuss, currently principal dancer with the National Ballet of Canada. Schaufuss is well suited for the role, which demands constant athletic turns. In his flying leaps he landed so gently on the stage that he was a Greek God through and through.
The choreography flows, especially the struggle between the Dark Angel and the Angel of Light, whose wrestling seemed in slow motion. Jennifer Penney as Eurydice danced neatly, even though rather without emotion. Macmillan gives a good feeling for her passage over the Styx, lost souls carrying her in surging movements to the pounding music.
It a fine tribute to the composer, even if the head coverings of the Furies (they looked like armadillos) and the robotlike actions of Apollo (dressed in gold with a square gold mask) stole some of the limelight.
Stravinsky, who loved to be commissioned and to work on order, and who often asked, ''How long should the music be?'' and ''How much will I be paid for it?'' would be delighted to know that his music is still being interpreted in new ways and forms.