English National Ballet: Our Voices

Sadler’s Wells, London
September 21, 2023

There is always a lot riding on a new artistic director’s first programme. So, it is with this English National Ballet triple bill that announces not only a new season, but the arrival of Aaron Watkin at the helm of the company. Hopes were up. ENB have been riding high of late, with particularly strong dancing from the men and exciting choices of programme.

Unfortunately, those hopes fail to be realised. It was perhaps unwise to choose Balanchine’s Theme and Variations as the opening work. Whilst it was for the most part capably executed, on this showing, the company lack the steely attack and glitter that American companies bring to it (and Balanchine generally) and that the work requires to take it out of ordinary classicism.

Emma Hawes and Aitor Arrieta in George Balanchine’s Theme and Variations
Photo Laurent Liotardo

Aitor Arrieta looked tense throughout and struggled noticeably in his tours, landing messily and only just making the full turns. His partnering looked sometimes insecure too. Emma Hawes, as perhaps befits an American, rose above it figuratively if not always literally, however. She looked cool as a cucumber throughout and took all the ballet’s technical challenges in her stride.

Roberta Guidi di Bagno’s costumes are pleasant enough but surely some decent chandeliers could have been dug out from somewhere rather than the straggly strings of LEDs that dangled tattily from the bars.

Andrea Miller’s Les Noces, Ascent To Days feels a bizarre choice. There is a clue in the title of Nijinsky’s piece but Miller states that she wasn’t interested in choreographing a wedding. So why choose that work? She begins with the premise that her work starts where the Rite of Spring leaves off. The Chosen One has been sacrificed. Now what? Therein lies a fundamental flaw: the Chosen One is sacrificed by a pagan society, the wedding takes places in a Christian one.

It starts with a spark of interest as a manic woman, hair streaming raggedly behind her, runs around in obvious distress. This never develops.

The late Phyllida Barlow’s set looks as if it had been dragged out and assembled from remnants found in an old scenery store for the Tom Baker-era Dr Who. A large blob representing who knows what hangs above the stage and a set of steps strewn with yet more blobs, rather like cavity wall insulation foam, sits at an angle upstage. Neither adds to an understanding of the work but at least they give the dancers something to relate to other than run around expressing angst. An equally bizarre choice was to translate the lyrics into English.

Erina Takahashi, Lorenzo Trosello and Gareth Haw in David Dawson’s Four Last Songs
Photo Laurent Liotardo

Sadly, there was more of the same to come with David Dawson’s Four Last Songs. At least it was sung (very well by Madeleine Pierard) in German. The whole piece comprises much running, writhing and emoting. One longed to see James Streeter actually dance.

The costumes, such as they are, are unflattering nude-effect leotards and tights which make the dancers look like animated mannequins running amok.

Richard Strauss’ Four Last Songs, the song cycle to which it is danced, should feel very moving. It is some of his most luscious music; a score that expresses the same depth of old-age reflection as say, Schubert’s Wintereisse. And there is so much more to Herman Hesse’s lyrics than frantic angst. But all of this was thrown away on a dull work that brought a disappointing evening to a dribbling close.

As ever the English National Ballet Philharmonic were on top form under Gavin Sutherland, who rose to the challenge of conducting an upstage choir as well as the ensemble whilst somehow also keeping an eye on the dancers and which often necessitated the baton rising around his ears!

English National Ballet’s Our Voices is at Sadler’s Wells to September 30, 2023.