Thoughts on English National Ballet in 2018 from an Audience Member
When I saw ENB last month at the London Coliseum, it suddenly struck me that nowadays when I see this company perform, I feel like I’m having the best kind of history lesson. In La Sylphide (1836) the dancers’ ballon and line, and the accent and phrasing of their mime conveyed very well to me what I understand to be Bournonville style, and I found it extremely satisfying. Because although La Sylphide is a Romantic ballet, it is more specifically a Bournonville ballet, and Frank Andersen, who staged the production, and Artistic Director Tamara Rojo were both intent on replicating the style as accurately and authentically as was possible.
The other Romantic ballet in the repertoire, Mary Skeaping’s production of the 1841 Giselle has its own stylistic characteristics: here very specific postures and port de bras are combined with linear stage patterns no less precise than in the works of Marius Petipa, such as The Sleeping Beauty (1890) and Le Corsaire (1899) (and indeed Petipa did rework Giselle extensively). However, the dynamics and energy are very different, and Petipa’s ballets show evidence of a crisper attack than either act of Giselle. And in the hands of ENB this is just what we see on stage. In William Forsythe’s In the Middle Somewhat Elevated from 1987 attack is still more visible, as well as a stronger sense of weight, particularly noticeable in the women’s dancing. For Akram Khan’s choreography, such as his 2014 Dust, yet a different use of weight is apparent, as well as a more extensive use of the back.
Ballet companies tend to pride themselves on their distinctive style (think of the rivalry between the Mariinsky and Bolshoi, for example). However, from an audience perspective, the disadvantage of this is that works tend to look less individual than they could. However, I am now finding ENB to be refreshingly and intriguingly different in this regard. It’s not that other companies are not versatile (all ballet companies need to be versatile nowadays), but the dancers of ENB seem to perform the different styles in a far more noticeably embodied way, demonstrating their cognitive and corporeal understanding of the various works, which they verbalise intelligently on the ENB website. This is something I have noticed developing over Tamara Rojo’s tenure as artistic director since 2012.
It might seem that this emphasis on embodying different historical and choreographic styles would detract from the individuality of the dancers. But the contrary seems to be true. In the January 2018 run of Kenneth MacMillan’s Song of the Earth (1965) in London, for example, Fernando Carratalá Coloma’s boyishness and youthful ease of movement lent an unusual poignancy to the role of the Messenger of Death, whereas Aaron Robison’s interpretation was brought to life by his clean incisive lines and his attack, accompanied by such subtleties as an eerie tilt of the head. Precious Adams stands out for the luscious quality of her dancing, Francesca Velicu for the harmony of her movements, and Sarah Kundi for her marvellous versatility – from her attack, verve and style in William Forsythe’s In the Middle Somewhat Elevated to her vibrant account of Madge in Bournonville’s La Sylphide.
This accomplished articulation of historical, choreographic and personal styles is underpinned by the substance of a repertoire of stability and tradition on the one hand and intelligence and imagination on the other. In addition to the repertoire discussed above, the last four years have seen Lest We Forget, the mixed bill of works inspired by the centenary of the First World War, and She Said, a triple bill of creations by female choreographers (a format to be replicated by Birmingham Royal Ballet next season); and this year will see the premiere of a new work from Forsythe. And then there’s the jewel in the crown that is Akram Khan’s Giselle, created in 2016. This magnificent work of art has given the dancers rich opportunities to create characters through spellbindingly inventive movement and a new lens through which to reimagine their traditional production of Giselle, clearly visible for example in the extraordinary interpretations of James Streeter as a jovial, then angry Prince of Courland, and Madison Keesler as a sympathetic and then distressed Bathilde. This repertoire has ensured my own increasing attendance at performances since 2013.
And now Rojo has secured brand new purpose-built state-of-the-art premises to ensure the best possible working, practice, rehearsal and rehabilitation spaces for her company. I look forward to the continuing rise of ENB …
© Rosemarie Gerhard 2018