November 26, 2020
English National Ballet’s digital season features five fifteen-minute original dance films, one released each week up to December 21.
Opening season is the already available Take Five Blues, choreographed by the company’s associate artist, Stina Quagebeur and directed by Sean James Grant. Arabic flavoured music accompanies a stylised warm-up that morphs into dancers moving in unison and the music switching into a version of Paul Desmond’s jazz standard, Take Five, albeit with an oriental patina. It’s a very watchable work that takes full advantage of the film medium but that would easily translate onto the live stage.
The eight dancers feed of each other as Quagebeur pushes classical ballet’s usual boundaries. There are unusual angles and sights. Camera positions invite the viewer into the wings or the flies. Dancers fall off pointe at the end of an enchâinment as if in rehearsal. We see the preparation for the preparation, then dancers huddling again for another unison section as we return to a traditional audience perspective.
A dancer is followed from behind as he takes centre stage for a duet, with others caught in the background as we zip into jazzy Bach that then becomes a virtual hoedown. That morphs again, the movement becoming languid with dancers dropping out of positions. The odd maverick solo zips along before being pulled into the slower pace until another ensemble section picks up the tempo. All is energy, energy, until the dancers drop like stones, gasping for air. Take Five Blues makes for a cracking start to the season.
To be released on November 30, the second film in the series is Senseless Kindness, Yuri Possokhov first work for a UK company. Based on Vasily Grossman’s great novel, Life and Fate, about a Russian family caught in the Second World War and set to the lush drama of Shostakovich’s Piano Trio No.1, the film is shot in monochrome. It’s a clever ruse that immediately catapults us into the 1940s as if we are watching a danced version of The Cranes Are Flying.
In what is the strongest of the five films, four dancers swap between pas de deux and duets for the men. Strong lines of light chop up their bodies into segments. The narrative itself is chopped up too by cutting; director Thomas James again making use of overhead shots with inter-cutting between mid-close-up and full-length shots framed by the beams of light and shade.
The final section again invites us into a ‘theatre’ space, light streaming from the wings and the drapes that mask them to create bars on the stage. Then the lighting changes into a cone expanding from a spotlight, further evoking a stage within a film.
Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s Laid in Earth (released on December 7) cakes the four dancers in full body paint and ‘earth’, the set showing a bleak landscape and an underworld where the roots of the scrubby shrubs twine downward. Wither Godot perhaps.
A dreary electronic score by Olga Wojciechowska merges into Dido’s lament from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, cliché replacing dullness. The disappointing choreography is just as unmemorable. There will come a time when we need to reflect on the mortality that COVID-19 has wrought but, in the middle of pandemic, with thousands of deaths occurring weekly in many countries, it all seems rather tactless and tasteless too.
Russell Maliphant takes no such trouble with costumes in his Echoes (released on December 14) which has the dancers bedecked in baggy grey trousers and tops, hair messily dangling in eyes. Yet more low lighting with shades and stripes of light accompanied by Arabic-ish music works far less well than with Take Five Blues. The movement, which one suspects was a challenge for the classically trained dancers, is also low level, with much writhing and use of ports de bras. Maliphant’s work is usually beautifully mesmerising but although Echoes picks up pace a little, it struggles to hold the interest.
So, hooray for the closing film of the season, Arielle Smith’s Jolly Folly (released on December 21), a collaboration filmmaker Amy Becker-Burnett and a sort of tribute to the silent film era with a hint of film noir. It’s a brilliant work that can and should be converted to a live stage setting
Again taking advantage of film’s ability for monochrome, male and female dancers are in black tie, sometimes without coats and with trousers lopped off as if their they were borrowed from a much shorter uncle. The music is terrific, teasing ballet and playing it at its own game. German musicians Tobias and Kilian Forster aka the Klazz Brothers fell in love with Cuba and the result in the opening of this work is the ‘Blue Danube’ with menaces. Like bouncers in a wet street outside a seedy club, the dancers are illuminated by bare street lights.
But there is more. It wouldn’t be Christmas without the Sugar Plum Fairy even if she is dancing a bossa nova and reminiscent of Buster Keaton. Smith plays with film as a solo dancer surveys a vista of clouds from a precipitous rock before we appear to travel into a vast building at exaggerated speed to watch a boxing match between two tuxedoed women to a jazzed up Rondo à la Turk. What a fun way to end the season!
All five films are available to rent (each includes a short accompanying documentary) via Ballet on Demand, part of English National Ballet’s new video platform, ENB at Home.