The great impresario Sergei Diaghilev faced many challenges when presenting his Ballets Russes in Paris at the turn of the 20th century (remember the near riot at the première of Le Sacre du Printemps?), and some things never change. A hundred years on, his present-day disciple Andris Liepa, calm and apologetic, gave an impromptu stand-up commentary when things didn’t go to plan on the opening night of his company’s visit to London. First he had to announce that the anticipated London première of Cleopatra – Ida Rubenstein had been cancelled due to an injured leading lady, Ilze Liepa. (“We’ll bring it next time”, he promised). Then, before the second ballet, he reported a lighting failure preventing the necessary flash of light for the entrance of the evil Koschei. After a long delay, he returned to suggest a short interval and the audience willingly left the warm auditorium until the bell summoned us back.

For those ready for a change from a diet of plotless ballets on scenery-starved stages with leotard-clad bodies, the Russian Seasons of the XXI Century offers the perfect antidote. Blazing with colour, the stage comes alive with stunning sets, courtly mannerisms, luxurious costumes and scintillating scores. Liepa’s company, using invited guests and dancers from Kremlin Ballet, are performing five ballets by Mikhail Fokine this week in three programmes, and while the dancing we saw was not as tidy or awe-inspiring as one would have hoped for, it was Liepa’s enthusiasm, dedication and desire to share his dream in restoring these old ballets, that made the first evening enjoyable.

Programme 1 opened with Le Spectre de la Rose, based on a poem by Gautier with music by Carl Maria von Weber and sets and costumes by Léon Bakst. It tells of a young girl returning home from a ball clutching a rose. She falls asleep and dreams that the rose comes into her room and dances with her. Mariinsky principal Yulia Makhalina was elegantly gentle as she sleep-danced with the Rose, her body expressing the excitement of the dream. Making his debut in this ballet was English-born Xander Parish, ex Royal Ballet and now a member of the Mariinsky Ballet. He is tall and slim with well-proportioned limbs, and has a handsome face and winsome smile. Dressed in a vibrant pink-rose costume with petal bandana, his clearly defined technique shows spinning turns, neat beats and bouncy steps, together with firmly pointed feet and soft landings – though the legendary leaps through the window were not as spectacular as hoped for. Given that he had only just arrived from St Petersburg and this was his first time performing the exhausting ten-minute, non-stop dancing role of the androgynous Spirit of the Rose, he made an initial good impression and now can work on interpretation.

Finally, after its aborted first attempt, the curtain rose on The Firebird, a ballet by Fokine based on an old Russian folk tale. With music specially commissioned by Diaghilev, this ballet began a collaboration between the impresario and a young Stravinsky, which would last until Diaghilev’s death in 1929. The score weaves a mysterious and atmospheric spell and while it is made up of four different sections like a classical ballet, the only dancer on pointe is the Firebird – all the other dancers are in soft shoes. Fokine’s genius is seen by the way he contrasts the Firebird’s quick, erratic actions with the gentle solemnity of the enchanted princesses and the unruly mass gatherings of the hideous other worldly creatures of armadillos, monsters sporting horned goats’ skulls, red-tongued, snarling wolverines and green leaping frogs. Koschei himself has a swirling cloak, pointy nose, fingers like scissors and three toed “ostrich” feet. Alexandra Timofeeyeva (Kremlin Ballet) is a pretty and pert ballerina flitting with bird-like movements as she played in the enchanted garden. And she was also the cheekiest Firebird I’ve seen, flashing her eyes as she challenges Koschei’s authority and inciting his hordes in an exhausting dance, before sending everyone into a deep sleep. Mikhail Lobukhin (Bolshoi) was Ivan, giving the static, non bravura role a sense of dignity and drama.

The final ballet was Scheherazade, a tale from the Arabian Nights of erotic passion, which alas, the company didn’t provide. The harem dancers were animated but not sexy, the slaves released from their prison, came out as though for a jog around the palace grounds rather than lusting after the willing nubile women, and the dancing was somewhat lacklustre. Zobeide (Makhalina), as the Shahriar’s favourite concubine, preened and showed off her body in slinky moves, but was too “nice” and didn’t emote the eroticism and desires needed for the role. Parish as the Golden Slave leaped and turned with strength and physical beauty but he too couldn’t summon up the sexuality that needs to ooze through every move. (And where was his body make-up? His bare torso was a startling white as were the other slaves, all supposedly Negroid.)

But criticism aside, the evening’s ballets gave a colourful and lively reminder of what had so thrilled Parisian audiences in the 1900s.

Russian Seasons 1, at London ColiseumMargaret Willis reviews Russian Seasons of XXI Century - Programme 1 at the London Coliseum.3