Quint-essential, five new ballets from New English Ballet Theatre

Peacock Theatre, London
November 9, 2016

Charlotte Kasner

It may seem like an odd choice to open a programme with a piece about falling asleep but Marcelino Sambé’s Land of Nod piques the interest throughout. He sets some fiendish choreography for his dancers and the combination of music by Nathan Halpern and Yann Tiersen, and April Dalton’s designs, evoke perfectly the sometimes bizarre world of dreams. Full of illogical logic, the dancers drift from one state to another, seamlessly moving up a pace and down a pace. At one stage, a dancer appears holding a silver, star shaped helium balloon. Why not? At times, it is quite creepy as a false ending sees a dancer, apparently twitching in restless sleep watched over by two others, their intent only to be guessed at. The dancers almost knitted together in places, a Gordian knot to which only Sambé has the solution. In many ways, this was the most accomplished piece of the evening.

Andrew Ellis’ lighting designs were a real highlight of the evening in all pieces. Here the lights appeared to round on the recumbent Hannah Sofo and converge to join the three men overlooking her sleeping figure like the eyes of multiple Big Brothers. Haunting.

George Williamson’s Strangers is again notable for its lighting, an enchanted forest of winking, suspended lights that evoke the garden of Koschei the Immortal. No Firebird here though. Instead, three pairs of dancers attempt to evoke the same failed relationship in a series of flashbacks. Louise Whitmore’s costumes are a pleasant change from the usual variation on a theme of a leotard but, in spite of having a librettist, any nuance in the narrative is elusive.

The young dancers of New English Ballet Theatre 2016Photo Patrick Baldwin
The young dancers of New English Ballet Theatre 2016
Photo Patrick Baldwin

Using three pairs of dancers to explain different facets of a relationship is not original. Indeed, the approach was explored to terrific effect, and in a similar manner, by Julian Barnes in his 1991 novel Talking It Over that tells the story of a relationship three times over from a different first-person perspective. What works on paper is harder to pull off in wordless dance though, and needs a less muddled approach than that taken by Williamson. There was just too much happening simultaneously with little change in pace. Simple effects such as using cannons and varying the choreography slightly in each rendition could have rescued things. The choice of Brahms, which fails to give the ballet shape, also does not help.

Kristen McNally’s Moonshine, the lightest piece on the programme, at best could only be described as a sort of watered down version of Mark Morris’ The Sandpaper Ballet, for me without the laughs or the sophistication. McNally also designed the costumes, in the same mould as the green and white of The Sandpaper Ballet. Silly hops and gestures are repeated a few times and it is really only the score, taken from the film The Grand Budapest Hotel, that prevents snoozing.

Valentino Zucchetti’s Enticement’s Lure to Rachmaninov is another exploration of relationships and how they can be damaged by temptations of various sorts. It would help if it did not take itself so seriously as moments of humour may have rescued what was decent choreography from just seeming like more of the same in the context of the evening. Ilaria Martello’s costumes do not flatter the dancers and distract from the piece rather than complimenting it.

Closing the programme, Daniela Cardim’s Vertex is to music by fellow Brazilian, Camargo Guarnieri, a largely unknown composer who died in 1993. Camargo is actually a name he adopted, having been named Mozart by his parents. His brothers didn’t get off any lighter, being called Rossine and Verdi. The score is unremarkable with no distinguishable mark of its own, and owes much to the genre of sub-Aaron Copeland that infects so many of his North American counterparts. The choreography is similarly pleasant but unnoteworthy. The dancers invested it with energy and interest but they deserve better. Dalton’s costume designs are eclectic, individually fine but lacking a unified approach that would have made them more visually appealing.

A weakness of many inexperienced choreographers is the tendency to fear stillness, something apparent throughout the evening. It is not necessary to illustrate every beat of the music nor to batter the audience with constant movement. It would also have helped had the pieces not had such similar narratives. There is so much more out there than inter-personal relationships folks!

The evening was also marred by the film clips that preceded each ballet. I suspect most people do not need a nervous choreographer telling everyone how pleased he is to have obtained the commission. The choreographers varied in their articulacy, but the less eloquent especially were not helped by choppy editing. The format also sets everyone up with the potential to fail since if the approach each choreographer outlines is not conveyed adequately, the audience are sure to feel disappointed.

Despite the reservations, NEBT are a terrific young company and there are real nuggets of talent in their choice of choreographers. I love their energy and approach, and using live music is only to be applauded. But allowing works to speak for themselves and having a stronger editorial overview would improve matters.