Igor Stravinsky: The Firebird & Les Noces. The Royal Ballet, John Carewe, conductor. BBC Opus Arte OA 0833 D

We are all aware of the Igor Stravinsky’s tremendous influence on the development of 20th century music, but we tend to forget that he had just as much effect on the development of 20th century ballet. This new DVD of the complete The Firebird ballet in its original large orchestra scoring shows why. Using Mikhail Fokine’s original 1910 choreography, the outstanding cast includes Leanne Benjamin as the Firebird, Jonathan Cope as Ivan Tsarevich and Genesia Rosato as the Beautiful Tsarevna, but David Drew as a stunningly costumed Kostcheï steals the show. The performance is riveting and visually superb. The complete score demonstrates how much great music is lost when we hear an abridged version, such as that performed last year by the Carolina Ballet, or only the suite that the composer extracted from the ballet. For ballet aficionados this Firebird is a truly historic document.

Equally historic is the production of the Dance-Cantata Les noces , composed in 1923 using the original choreography by Bronislava Nijinska, the younger sister of the famous dancer Vaslav Nijinski. Les noces portrays the ritual of an ancient Russian folk wedding and is a much more austere work than the opulent Russian story ballets. Rather than tell the story of a particular bride and groom, it portrays the archetypal emotions of the participants. The orchestra consists of four pianos and percussion, and a chorus and solo singers on the stage sing words that the dancers half dance and half mime with appropriate movements. Unfortunately there is no text in the accompanying booklet.

Choreographer Nijinska was a power in her own right in the world of early 20th century ballet. She recreated her original austere choreography of Les noces with the Royal Ballet in 1966, and the current performance is a 2000 reproduction of that revival. The choreography bears some striking resemblance to her brother’s original choreography for Le sacre de primtemps , including elements of Russian folk dance and a kind of primitivism bearing little resemblance to any ballet seen up to that time. It is Nijinsky’s choreography, in fact, as much as Stravinsky’s music that precipitated the riot at Le sacre ‘s premiere.

In keeping with its primeval character, the choreography is stylized – almost militaristic – in its stark symmetry and chorus in lockstep patterns. Zenaida Yanowsky as the bride and David Pickering as the bridegroom actually do the least dancing, allowing the corps de ballet of bridesmaids and groomsmen to perform the ritual dance around them.

A wonderful bonus on the DVD is the extra feature “Nijinska’s World,” hilarious reminiscences by dancer David Drew of the 1966 revival with Nijinska at the helm. It must have been quite an experience since Nijinska spoke and worked with the dancers in three languages, all of which she seems to have forgotten.