A jolly good evening! Live dance returns with English National Ballet’s Reunion

Sadler’s Wells, London
May 17, 2021

My goodness. How we have waited for this moment. In the programme for Reunion, English National Ballet artistic director writes that she is delighted to be performing at Sadler’s Wells again. On the first day theatres are allowed to reopen, so was everyone in the expectant Sadler’s Wells audience.

I guess it was no surprise that applause, cheers and stamping feet greeted Sadler’s Wells Artistic Director Alistair Spalding and English National Ballet Executive Director Patrick Harrison as live dance returned to the theatre for the first time in almost six months. And that’s before the audience sat back to enjoy this varied programme of five works, which although presented online in autumn 2020, had never before been seen in live performance. They all transfer well, the larger canvas of the stage giving some in particular the chance to truly breathe.

A work for two couples, Senseless Kindness by Yuri Possokhov is based on Vasily Grossman’s 800-page novel, Life and Fate, about a Russian family caught in the Second World War.

Alison McWhinney and Isaac Hernandez in Senseless Kindness
Photo Laurent Liotardo

Much use is made of strong light streaming in through church-like windows that not creates dramatic patterns on the floor, the dance itself switching effortlessly between pas de deux, duets for the men and solos; and from thoughtful to playful. It’s very much a dance of heart and soul as Possokhov taps into the spirit of the book and the various moods of Shostakovich’s Piano Trio No.1, which itself shifts between sorrowful, thoughtful and playful. There is no overt narrative, however, the dance feeling more like a series of snapshots over time.

Laid in Earth by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui to ‘Dido’s Lament’ from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas (sung live by mezzo soprano Catherine Backhouse) and electronic music by Olga Wojciechowska. The full body paint and earth-covered floor of the film has gone, although the remains of a solitary tree still suggest a bleak landscape.

Precious Adams in Laid in Earth by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui
Photo Laurent Liotardo

In his film introduction, Cherkaoui refers to leaving things behind but we can never leave our shadows. Perhaps we’ve all become a little immune to that over the past year but the work certainly lacks the punch it had six months ago on film. It was beautifully danced however, the highlight being Precious Adams’ incredible plasticity as her body continually folded and shifted in a solo.

Things perked up enormously with Stina Quagebeur’s Take Five Blues, inspired by Nigel Kennedy’s take on Paul Desmond’s well-known ‘Take Five’ and his response to Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins and Orchestra. In her introductory film, Quagebeur says, “I wanted it to be fun.” She certainly succeeded in that.

English National-Ballet in Take Five Blues by Stina Quagebeur
Photo Laurent Liotardo

From the slow opening that has splashes of movement appearing here and there from the cast of eight, it’s also a brilliant bringing together of jazz and classical music with very watchable dance. As the opening Eastern sounds morph into a Balkan-infused version of Take Five, the choreography buzzes into life. The men get the bigger, more expressive choreography on the whole, but overall, it has a wonderful spontaneous, improvisational feel; not unlike a bunch of friends having a good time, which I guess is what it is.

It will come as little surprise to learn that Russell Maliphant’s Echoes make great use of light. Panagiotis Tomaras’ designs start off by making it look like we are staring into a pond absolutely teeming with minute life buzzing back and forth. Later, there’s an effect that’s like a strange ever-rotating spider’s web, and then a conveyor belt of never-ending black and white strips, which is effective if hard on the eyes. The closing scene, in which the final remaining dancer almost vanishes before the eyes as the ‘pond life’ returns is superbly done.

Fernanda Oliveira and Fabian Reimair in Echoes by Russell Maliphant
Photo Laurent Liotardo

The movement itself is typical Maliphant: very grounded, very strong, but also flowing and very smooth. It struggles for impact, however, even when the pace picks up towards the end.

And so to Jolly Folly by Arielle Smith, which is exactly that; and I might add, jolly good fun too. It’s a fast-paced, energetic tribute to the black-and-white silent screen comedies of the 1920s, with just the odd dash of film noir thrown in for good measure. Driven on by Latin-inspired covers of Tchaikovsky, Strauss and Mozart from the Klazz Brothers, and with brilliant costumes by Smith herself, it brings grin after grin.

English National Ballet in Jolly Folly by Arielle Smith
Photo Laurent Liotardo

It’s incredibly inventive. The dancers, men and women identically dressed in unisex tuxedos but with trousers cut short at the ankle whizz around as if powered by souped-up Duracell batteries as they move around at exaggerated speed. It’s absolutely loaded with gags and ballet references. Among the highlights is a boxing match between two of the now jacketless women to a jazzy version of ‘Rondo à la Turk’ What really makes it, are the little looks at each other and the audience, however.

The evening as a whole felt like a celebration; even in the queue to get in you could sense the expectation and the thrill of being back. The Sadler’s Wells audience lapped it all up. Jolly Folly was a grand way to round it off, applause and laughter ringing out time and again. And quite right too.

English National Ballet’s Reunion is at Sadler’s Wells to May 19, then from May 25-30, 2021. Visit www.sadlerswells.com for tickets and details.