A summer special: English National Ballet’s Solstice

Royal Festival Hall, London
June 17, 2021

A little early maybe (five days before the summer solstice), but English National Ballet Solstice at the Southbank proved a delicious smorgasbord of dance.

The afternoon began with extracts from Act III of Ronald Hynd’s Coppélia, first staged by ENB in 1985. It was a pleasant opening with Emma Hawes a fetching Swanilda and Aitor Arrieta a characterful Franz. The bare stage did not help with the noise of the bridesmaids’ pointe shoes though; a little more banging out before use needed perhaps?

Remaining in classical mode, Erik Woolhouse, Katja Khaniukova, Alice Bellini, Francesca Velicu and Emilia Cadorin danced excerpts from Kenneth Macmillan’s Sleeping Beauty, premièred by ENB in 2005. Lovely to see Nicholas Georgiadis’ gorgeous costumes too. The dancing matched the opulence of the costume prompting one enthusiastic member of the audience to shout “Brava” at the end of one solo.

Akram Khan’s Dust in English National Ballet’s Solstice
(pictured: Erina Takahashi and James Streeter)
Photo Laurent Liotardo

Emily Suzuki and Jeffrey Cirio dancing the duet from Akram Khan’s Dust jerked the audience into the twentieth century, with the haunting soundtrack of the First World War soldier and its scratchy reproduction. Commissioned by ENB to commemorate the centenary of the outbreak of war, it continues to resonate.

Ben Stevenson’s Three Preludes was created in 1969 and first danced by ENB four years later. Fernanda Oliveira and Skyler Martin danced the couple flirting at the barre, with music by that most romantic of composers Rachmaninov played beautifully by Julia Richter. Oliveira lifts Martin like a sylph onto the barre at one point as she seems to fly from his hands in a gossamer light but steely strong movement. At another, she is held facing him, her feet fluttering in batterie in mid-air like a frantic moth caught in a trap.

Natascha Mair, Isaac Hernández and Daniel McCormick brought us back to the gala favourites in the pas de trois from Le Corsaire. Hernández literally flung himself into the rôle and created quite a buzz amongst the audience. Incidentally, ENB were the first British company to dance the full-length version of this classic.

Ben Stevenson’s Three Preludes in English National Ballet’s Solstice
(pictured: Emma Hawes and Junor Souza)
Photo Laurent Liotardo

In contrast, what a pleasure it was to see Carolyne Galvao as Frieda Kahlo and James Streeter as Diego Rivera (unenviably in a fat suit in a hot day) in a pas de deux from Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s wonderful Broken Wings, another commission by ENB, premièred in 2016. This excerpt did exactly what is should: whetted the appetite to see the complete production again whilst simultaneously conveying a great deal about the characters.

Stina Quagebeur’s Hollow is a rather bleak pas de deux danced by Alison McWhinney and Junor Souza, an examination of depression. Performed to recorded music by Giovanni Sollima played by Yo-Yo Ma and Kathryn Stott, it is a battle to escape the clutches of the black dog, McWhinney alternately pulling away and being dragged back into the present from the downward spiral of her mind.

Back to the familiar with the penultimate piece, the Black Swan pas de deux with Erina Takahashi as an unusually shaky Odile and Joseph Caley as Siegfried. It’s never easy to pull out all the stops without the benefit of a two-act lead in although this was the only indication that the company have had to battle against the strictures of lockdown for so many months.

English National Ballet in William Forsythe’s Playlist (Track 1, 2)
Photo Bill Cooper

An otherwise immensely enjoyable afternoon ended on a low with the William Forsythe’s Playlist (Track 1, 2). Be warned, ear plugs are a must as the thumping pop music is blasted out at full, sternum-rattling volume. The men are required to be frenetic, their classical lines and batterie obscured by the thud, thud, thud of the soundtrack. Whilst it undoubtedly highlights the virtuosity and diversity in the company’s offerings, it jarred (literally and figuratively) with the remainder of the programme and obliged Gavin Sutherland to sit it out which rather undercut his and the orchestra’s much-deserved accolades.

On the subject of which, one major benefit of the Covid-19 restrictions was the removal of the pit barriers, exposing the orchestra to the audience and greatly enhancing the sound quality in an auditorium that was designed to funnel the sound outwards. Far from being a distraction, my mirror neurones were definitely firing in empathy with Sutherland’s and the musicians’ energy and verve. It also has the added advantage of exposing the relationship of the musicians to the dancers, something that is too often hidden and taken for granted. I for one would vote for this to be retained wherever possible.

Elsewhere, as seems to be the case almost everywhere, the front of house staff coped admirably with the entry requirements and seemed as pleased as any to be back. The requirement to arrive 45 minutes before curtain provided an opportunity to chat with members of the orchestra who took breaks in the foyer and whetted the appetite for seeing the Company live.

English National Ballet’s Solstice programme is at the Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre to June 26, 2021. Visit www.southbankcentre.co.uk for details and tickets.