January 9, 2017
It seems extraordinary that, as late as 1965 the, albeit extremely conservative, Royal Ballet board considered Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde unsuitable as ballet music (having previously also turned the idea down in 1959). MacMillan therefore created the work for Stuttgart Ballet via his connection with John Cranko. The ballet was an immediate success and, ironically, was taken into the Royal Ballet repertoire just six months after its German opening, with the great Marcia Haydée reprising her role of the Woman.
As may be expected of Macmillan, moves are expansive and the dancers often get the opportunity to cover the stage. Line is all and ports de bras are placed firmly. He wisely decides not to illustrate the text directly, indeed, the movement sometimes contradicts it, but the overall meaning is clear. There is a feeling that the inevitable pull of death is moving ever onwards as Mahler intended when he wrote the work to express his feelings at his recent reminders of his mortality.
Tamara Rojo, Joseph Caley (the Man) and Fernando Carratalá Coloma (the Messenger of Death) looked very much at home with the ballet, ably assisted by the excellent Rhonda Browne and Samuel Sakker who managed to sing unobtrusively but with full expression. Rojo looked like a small blue butterfly flitting between brief life and impending demise. At over an hour long, some of the repetition may irk a contemporary audience. The end, as the dancers walk into death, is hypnotic, though.
The new (for London) production of La Sylphide by Frank Andersen, Eva Kloborg and Anne Marie Vessel Schlüter could not be more of a contrast. Often, much detail is lost from Bournonville and Cecchetti as modern choreographers drive for noise and athleticism. The ENB dancers dash off the fiendish technical intricacies as if they were born to it, however.
La Sylphide’s major failing is some of its ghastly costume designs. Even Eric Bruhn wasn’t unflattered by a kilt. At least James and Effy are garbed in muted tones here, but poor Daniel Kraus as Gurn was obliged to dance with what looked like a custard yellow drape flapping around his legs and distracting from his dancing. Very insubstantial it looked too for galivanting around the forest in Act II. The corps fared no better, looking as if they had hastily snatched up the table cloths to substitute for forgotten dresses.
The obligatory Scottish dancing out of the way, the real delight of the evening is the eponymous sylph, Jurgita Dronina gloriously spritely after a small wobble early on. Beautifully lit, she glowed with ethereality, enhanced by her feather-light ballon and steely point work. Her charms were as self-centred as a cat but she did not shy away from showing her vulnerability and it is a genuine catastrophe when her wings fall off and she dies.
Isaac Hernandez as James is clod-hoppingly stupid in ignoring his earthly bride and in losing his temper so easily with Madge (more of witch later), but not in his dancing. The power in his elevation is breath taking and his batterie seems as effortless as walking. By the end, like Albrecht, he too is crushed by the realisation of what he has lost, reminding us that this is a work of the gloomy Romantic period after all.
Every member of the company was infused with period line, the corps of sylphs getting the once-corseted lean of the upper torso and the ports de bras carried much further forward than is usual in modern times. They collectively inspire literal inspiration in the audience as they stand stock still en pointe in fifth as if they could stay there all day.
English National Ballet has always fielded strong character dancers, none more so than Jane Haworth as the stringy, malevolent Madge. Her hip-dropping limp is mesmerising as she holds the stage on each entrance and exit. The machinations of the coven at the opening of Act II are brilliant and almost Pythonesque in their grotesquery.
A contrasting and enjoyable evening with the English National Ballet Philharmonic in fine form under the baton of Gavin Sutherland.
English National Ballet’s Song of the Earth/La Sylphide continues at the London Coliseum to January 13. Visit londoncoliseum.org or call the box office on 020 7845 9300 for tickets.