January 17, 2020
The classics ran like a thread throughout English National Ballet’s 70th anniversary gala but the boldness of a company that has never shied away from innovation, often in adversity, shone through too. It’s a tribute to them that so much more could have been included. Inevitably, it was bitter-sweet too, as we remembered those no longer with us as well as enjoying the longevity of those who were there in the earliest days of London Festival Ballet.
After a brief introduction on film, the evening opened with a rare treat, the Farruca from Le Tricorne, here ably danced by Sergio Bernal. Commissioned by Serge Diaghilev, the original Leonid Massine production premiered almost within sight of the London Coliseum at the Alhambra in Leicester Square just over a century ago. ENB took it into the repertoire in 1973 and I for one would petition for a revival.
Jumping a century forward, Akram Khan’s Dust echoes the Great War and, in its linked, undulating arms, pays more than a passing reference to Les Noces. David Richardson’s lighting is fundamental, contributing hugely to the evocative nature of the work.
Christopher Bruce’s Swansong reminded us that ENB has always challenged its dancers, not only stretching their technique, but demanding the very best dramatic output. The original cast of Matz Skoog, Koen Onzia and Kevin Richmond were very much in mind, not least due to the latter’s untimely death last year.
…Of What’s To Come was the first of references to Giselle, a big early draw for the company as Markova’s signature work. It showcases the ENB Youth Company and reminds us that ENB was the first company to set up an education unit in 1980. Set to Adam’s Marche des Vignerons, the dancers demonstrated good placing and plenty of energy.
George Balanchine’s Apollo did not come into the ENB repertoire until 1988. Francesco Gabriele Frola is the latest in a long line to assail the role, in this all too brief glimpse which certainly left us wanting more.
No ENB celebration could be complete with Rudolf Nureyev’s Romeo and Juliet, one of the most frequently performed productions in the repertoire. Full marks for choosing Dance of the Knights instead of the obvious pas de deux, and that gets to the heart of the production, managing to convey pretty much every word of Shakespeare via choreography. Dance of the Knights is Romeo and Juliet in a nutshell as we see Juliet as the ingenue with her friends, her repulsion for marriage to Paris and the power and the almost literal sabre-rattling of the Capulets.
Akram Khan’s Giselle has garnered much acclaim for the company and students from the English National Ballet School performed the Migration excerpt from the ballet.
Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s bold Broken Wings is another recent triumph, a gloriously evocative piece that not only reproduces Frieda Kahlo’s work but conveys something of her complex life. Tamara Rojo and Fabian Reimair danced the pas de deux. Who could have imagined that Diego Rivera would have been celebrated in choreography?
Balanchine’s Who Cares? gave a first foray into Gershwin. Fascinatin’ Rhythm highlighted Precious Adams in garish hot pink and presented her with quite a challenge.
Garish costumes were also much in evidence in the reel from August Bournonville’s La Sylphide which gave another opportunity for the students of the school to shine. Some very nice feet were in evidence and the dancers clearly enjoyed their moment in the spotlight.
As is the way with galas, we were rapidly transported into another world with a technically sharp and glittering section from Kenneth MacMillan’s version of The Sleeping Beauty. The demands on this generation of dancers is extraordinary compared to 70 years ago, with many different styles to absorb and all the same wear and tear on mind and body that constant touring imposes. They proved that they are more than a match with not a foot (or any other part of the body) out of place.
Sadly, we don’t see much of Ben Stevenson’s choreography these days so what a treat to be presented with the pas de deux from Three Preludes dating from 1973. Fernanda Oliveira and Junor Souza were simply stunning. Seamless partnering made it look as if pirouettes were on well-oiled bearings. A smooth, slow triple pirouette morphed, apparently effortlessly, into a high lift. Another to bring back into the repertoire please.
Roland Petit’s Carmen has received a mere 47 performances at ENB in 1986. Tamara Rojo and Francesco Gabriele Frola performed the main duet as brief reminder.
Back to the old warhorses, the Mazurka from Ronald Hynd’s Coppélia gave the corps another chance to show off their character dancing in this perennial favourite.
A second foray into Gershwin and Who Cares? came with The Man I Love, danced by Irina Takahashi and Isaac Hernandez. The fabulous English National Ballet Philharmonic luxuriated in the score, as did the audience. It’s a super, bitter-sweet pas de deux with lovey costumes from Roberto Guidi di Bagno. There was a logic to choosing a young singer to parallel the dancers but was it really necessary, especially as Brittany Wallis’ thin soprano and medium-heavy vibrato did not do it justice.
We were not allowed to wallow in melody for very long, being rudely dragged into the loud electronic thumping of Playlist (Track 2), a 2018 commission from William Forsythe. Whatever the shortcomings of the soundtrack, the dancers all but exploded onto the stage, the fact that this was the penultimate work of the evening being no barrier to their enthusiasm and energy. This generation of male dancers is one of the strongest that the company have had in seven decades and they certainly proved their worth in this piece.
The evening ended (almost) with Harald Lander’s sublime Études. What to say? Nothing could have showcased the company better than this fiendishly demanding ballet, a witty tribute to the art that is central to every performance. It has been in English National Ballet’s repertoire almost from the beginning, being first performed in 1955 and clocking up nearly 800 performances. The orchestra, and definitely music director Gavin Sutherland, had to concentrate as much as the dancers as, like Charles Ives’ clashing marching bands, they played separate music for each barre. The best treat of the evening had to be the famous crossed light beams and the presto scissors as the dancers became ever bolder and faster. The final pyros at the curtain call paled in comparison with the fireworks on stage.
After the well-deserved public tributes, the evening played out with another reminder of the legacy on film and the ENB Philharmonic and Bolero.
English National Ballet has often seemed to have drawn the short straw, with far less funding than they deserve and no permanent home. Somehow this has always managed to be turned to advantage. They pioneered arena ballet and educational outreach, and decades on the road adapting to all sorts of venues has honed their dancers to perfection. Their commitment to live music has given us a superb orchestra and a music director expert in the neglected field of ballet conducting. Never mind eyes in the back of the head, Gavin Sutherland appears to have the eyes of a jumping spider as he never misses a cue for his ensemble and watches every move of the dancers in order to adjust tempi to their bodies. Dancers must be grateful indeed when the ENB Philharmonic occasionally play for other performances.
It was sad in some ways to see the company’s recent departure from Jay Mews with its very own ‘Swan Lake’ puddling in the cobbles outside the entrance on rainy days, but new purpose-built premises were much needed. ENB’s new home at London City Island has given them just that, and hopefully secured their future for at least another 70 years.