The Russian court resembled a Fabergé egg with a time bomb inside it. But the composer Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky had his private equivalent: recent research has suggested that he was blckmailed into taking his own life because of threats to ruin him by exposing his homosexuality. Not surprisingly, Matthew Hawkins' Fresh Dances for the Late Tchaikovsky emphasized not ony the rapturous quality of his music but also its intensity. At first, it could hardly bediscerned. As members of the audience took their seats in the circle and gallery of London's Hackney Empire, a perfectly preserved Victorian music hall, they gazed into the pit, able to hear but not see the Endymion Ensemble. They then mused on the function of an elongated catwalk extending from the front of the stage to the doors facing it. Onstage, the ritualised elegance of the Russian Court itself was seen , and its passion, dignity and wilful obliviousness to the outside world made it difficult to dispel the idea of imminent collapse. Fantasy offered one means of escape. Soas the intricate mathematics of the dancers' movements collapsed, hallucination took over and th evening ended with a parody of the toys from the Nutcracker: grotesque, portmanteau objects with people inside them, like a fashion display from a neighbouring planet. And dance gave way to visual sensation as the inspired costumes threatened to steal the show.
From the moment the Endymion Ensemble walked up on stage one by one, continuing to play, the division between audience and performer was questioned in true music-hall fasion, a doubt that is only reinforced by recognisable personae. For, as in dreams, or the Baroque court masque, Fresh Dances featured real people, playing themselves. Rose English appeared, dancing with the company but doing so in her own fashion like a built-in alienation effect, but mainly acting as an erotic icon, striding about in eleborate tights and tightly laced boots: a buxom Principal Boy-cum-ringmaster-cum-dominatrix straight out of an Angela Carter fantasy. At another point in the evening, a second visitor made her way across the catwalk. Corseted, frilled and furbelowed by the designer Pearl, and wearing a riding outfit that wanted to be a wedding dress, she strolled distractedly among the dancers as if looking for something she had forgotten. Suddenly she started to speak. Where was she, she asked nobody in particular, that horseman she had once seen riding by? Would he ever return? And roaming among knots of dancers, she suddenly burst into song. Unfocused, unbridled, Fenella Fielding has always been an anarchic stage presence, Hawkins managed to restrain her until the second half, when from the orchestra pit she performed a Victorian drawing-room song, archly and with more than a hint of dementia. Later, a simple trick allowed her to fill the stage. As she walked forward to confron t the audience, the traain of her skirt extended up as well as back and sideways, so that suddenlt she became part of the set, like the musicians who had played in full view of the audience for almost the entire evening.
Yest histrionics were balanced by athletics. As befits the music of a genius regarded as a martyr to his own sexuality, Matthew Hawkin's choreography was as competitive and intense as Tchaikovsky's music, notoriously exhausing for performers. In Fresh Dances... it was presented as intense and self-centred; lighting designer Martin Richman moved the male dancers through zones of red and blue so powerful that that the very idea of a stage-turned concert platform was forgotten. Hawkins himself remained a hermetic presence. In heavy make-up, he appeared in court shoes and tight tunic-like tops ip to his chin, with sleeves so loosely connected to the rest of the gament that the hair pof his armpits protruded, a perfect sculptural illustration of repression as a spur to sexual 'perversity'. Kinky, lavish, perfectly imagined, each costume contained a proposition taken to its extreme. Only masque or pantomime could accomodate such lavish perfection. As the idea of escape into a world of unalloyed aestheticism developed, however, so did the felt need for that escape. Late in the second half, Fielding stopped the show by leaning on a piano and delivering a song in fits and starts, with all manner of archness. Oddly, this parlour turn and Hawkins' controlled eroticism served the same purpose: to place the audience inside and outside the action simultaneously, as if keeping and knowing what was an open secret. But what exactly does that mean? Open secret are still secrets after all. At the end of the day, Fresh Dances... could still be classified under 'Critical essays', essai meaning attempt. And what an attempt.