English National Ballet at the London Coliseum
January 16, 2018
Le Jeune Homme is an iconic gem of post-war ballet, the serendipitous encounter between an idea from Jean Cocteau, an existential hero to capture the mood of the times, a daring last-minute switch of music and Roland Petit’s genius. Since its creation by Jean Babilée, the role of the young man has been coveted by generations of dancers and requires the sort of big beast charisma that Ivan Vasiliev has in shedloads. With the self-obsessed desperation of a man on the brink of suicide he throws himself into the challenges, leaping over chairs and pirouetting on the table top. Dressed in blue jeans with bare chest and dishevelled hair he connects the rawness of James Dean to exceptional ballet technique in a riveting performance.
Tamara Rojo, as Death, has both one of the best entrances and one of Karinska’s most exemplary costumes, the canary yellow dress, black wig and gloves. Rojo’s sophistication collides with the squalor of the garret and there is little question as to who will be the winner. Her final entrance as she returns to offer the suicide a death mask and lead him across the rooftops of Paris never fails to thrill.
La Sylphide, one of the oldest ballets still regularly performed has, at its heart an enduring theme: the jilted bride. James, a sensitive and imaginative young man, faced with a life of domesticity and conjugal harmony, offers new meaning to ‘away with the fairies’ and does a runner. In his enchanting ballet, August Bournonville, a true egalitarian, gives value to both men and women, young and old, humour and aesthetic beauty and the production team, Eva Kloborg, Anne Marie Vessel Schlüter and Frank Andersen have taken pains to brings the wealth of characters to exuberant life.
This performance had beautifully matched principals. Alison McWhinney, with her Victorian neck and shoulder line, could have stepped straight out of a lithograph. She captured the delicacy and softness in her upper body while contending with the fiendish difficulties of the Danish technique. She also had the thoughtless butterfly charm accredited to sylphs, where love and pleasure in the moment is all. She filled the role with sweetness and light and her death brings a sense of real tragedy. Her James, Aitor Arrieta, scored with thrusting elevation and brilliant batterie. His discourtesy to Madge in Act One does him little credit and Gurn, Henry Dowden, comes across as a serious contender for Effy’s hand. However, come act two and Arrieta is thoroughly at home dancing Bournonville’s elegant and buoyant choreography with his beautiful sylph.
Dowden, a true salt-of-the-earth man, gave a performance, bursting with bonhomie plus some pretty neat footwork while his Effy, Francesca Velicu, if a little delicate for a Scottish lass, was charm itself. Stina Quagebeur played Madge sprightlier and prettier than usual, though still a force to be reckoned with. She was at her strongest in her forest lair, bringing a sinister quality to the murky opening scene when the spell is cast.
The sylphs were impeccably rehearsed both in steps and style, but the romantic setting was not helped by a sky of vivid cobalt blue. Where were the Highland mist beloved of poets and bards? I was sorry also that the original overture was used. The much shorter version used in many versions is a better length and seems to build more successfully to curtain up. Herman Severin Løvenskiold’s music has charm and is eminently suitable for the ballet but it is not great music, neither was it improved by abysmal playing. This could have been the result of the unprofessional practice of allowing deps to cover for regular players but even Gavin Sutherland’s enthusiastic conducting was not enough to whip them into line.