An inspiring evening of contemporary ballet: English National Ballet, Ek/Forsythe/Quagebeur

Sadler’s Wells, London
November 9, 2022

This modern triple bill from English National Ballet opens with William Forsythe’s soulful Blake Works I, set to seven songs from James Blake’s album The Colour in Anything. It was beautifully danced. Nothing ever seemed out of place, so precise and coordinated were the ensemble.

However, the choreography is frenetic and quickly becomes tiresome, not least because Blake’s accompanying music is so grim. No doubt he has his admirers but, like so much in this genre, it alternates between whining and thumping, the diction of the singer producing a grating falsetto far too often with only odd lyrics discernible.

Emily Suzuki and Fernando Carratala Coloma in Blake Works I by William Forsythe
Photo Laurent Liotardo

Forsythe’s choreography also lacks variety. Ports de bras hint at classicism but often just flap like windmills. It is abstract to the point of being plain uninteresting, without any sense of relationship between the dancers. How ever accomplished the dancers’ technique, it felt empty, although I understand that, seen from the circle, intricate geometric patterning invisible to those downstairs becomes very clear.

Stina Quagebeur raised the spirits enormously with her newly extended, live version of Take 5 Blues, first seen on film during lockdown. If anything, it is even better than it seemed then. In complete contrast to Blake Works, the jazzy music is terrific and witty to boot.

Katja Khaniukova and Henry Dowden in Take Five Blues by Stina Quagebeur
Photo Laurent Liotardo

The attention is grabbed from the outset as a tense circle of people square up to each other. At one point it was reminiscent of ‘Cool’ in the 1961 film of West Side Story. It’s a ballet of real relationships and interactions that flare up and wane, always keeping the interest up. Moon-like globes of lights add a contrasting romantic feel to the sometimes sinister, threatening air.

All of which is a good warm-up for Mats Ek’s new version of The Rite of Spring. Perhaps only a giant of choreography such as Ek could so successfully pull off a reboot of such a familiar subject, although something is lost in the musical relationships by divorcing it from its raw, ancient Russian roots.

English National Ballet in The Rite of Spring by Mats Ek
Photo Laurent Liotardo

It invites the interpretation that it is set in an asylum, Marie-Luoise Ekman’s two dimensional monochrome designs provide a crude silhouette of a building while stacks of chairs that arc across the stage seemingly wait for occupation in a group therapy session. The flesh-coloured pyjama-like costumes for the men and kimono-like wraps for the women emphasise this impression although they all too often lit as pink.

There are ambiguities. There seemed to be two sacrificial victims, only for one to disappear, flapping as a loose end, although providing an opportunity for a pas de deux. Did the Chosen One die or have the last laugh as it were? Ultimately, it doesn’t matter as it can easily be enjoyed at face value.

Ek’s ballet also meant that, at last, we had the excellent English National Ballet Philharmonic under the baton of maestro Gavin Sutherland, no doubt relishing the chance to play the Stravinsky score that still feels daring more than a century after it was written. Hats off to John McDougall, principal bassoonist for pulling off one of the hairiest openings in the repertoire with an aplomb that sent shivers down the spine.

English National Ballet’s Ek/Forsythe/Quagebeur programme is at Sadler’s Wells to November 12, 2022. Visit for details and tickets.