Diana and Actaeon, the odd couple of a Soviet showstopper

There’s nothing quite like the Diana and Actaeon* pas de deux to excite a ballet audience.

The piece is a classic showstopper, she all smiles, sustained balances and plunging poses into arabesque, he showing off his bare chest and scissor legs.

Along with Spring Waters, another athletic/acrobatic pas de deux choreographed in the days of the Soviet Union, Diana and Actaeon is a showcase for virtuosic male dancers and a favourite number in gala performances in the 1950s and ‘60s.

When Nureyev danced with the Australian Ballet in 1964 he partnered Lupe Serrano in performances of Diana and Actaeon and in 2007 it was part of the Australian Ballet’s Melbourne season of Paquita, an umbrella title for a program of pas de deux (including Spring Waters) and the Grand Pas from Paquita.

It’s made a comeback in the Australian Ballet’s gala production in which five short pieces precede Balanchine’s Symphony in C.

The biggest bravo moment in Diana and Actaeon comes when the male dancer flies around the stage in a sequence of double tours but on the opening night of the Australian Ballet gala last Friday Chengwu Guo added a series of barrel rolls that almost had the audience on its feet with glee.

But what is this party piece, where did it come from and why is Diana dancing with Actaeon anyway?

The pas de deux, choreographed by Agrippina Vaganova, has nothing in common with the myth of the goddess, Diana and the hunter, Actaeon, who happened to see her naked when she was bathing. To punish him, Diana turned him into a stag and he was killed by his own dogs.

So why does the piece show Diana and Actaeon bouncing around for joy?

The pas de deux we know today was an interpolation in Vaganova’s 1935 production of Jules Perrot’s ballet, La Esmeralda, danced by the company then called the Kirov.

Her pas de deux was based on a divertissement choreographed by Petipa for a revival of his ballet, Le Roi Candaule in 1891.

The pas de trois roles were the goddess, Diana, the shepherd, Endymion and a satyr. Petipa’s inspiration, it’s been said, was a painting by the Russian artist, Karl Bryullov, in which the wide eyed, red faced satyr has his arm around Diana’s thigh as she lies on top of a sleeping Endymion.

For her pas de deux in 1935, Vaganova eliminated the satyr, and changed the name of Diana’s beloved from Endymion to Actaeon. Her choreography did include a reference to Actaeon’s transformation to a stag, with its series of stag leaps throughout the pas de deux.

Galina Ulanova and Vaktang Chabukiani danced in the first performance of the pas de deux.

* The Australian Ballet has used Acteon as the spelling in the gala program.

Click for a performance of the pas de deux by Nureyev with Svetlana Beriosova
Diana and Actaeon

The video shows the traditional Diana and Actaeon and a version of the original pas de trois, reconstructed by the ballet historian, Doug Fullington and performed by three dancers from Pacific Northwest Ballet.

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