English National Ballet Now & Then

Introductory thoughts

English National Ballet dancers take a bow at the end of Etudes part of the 70th Anniversary Gala (C) Piers Allardyce

If you are a regular reader of British Ballet Now & Then, you will know that what we offer here is a personal perspective on British ballet based on our own experiences of watching various British ballet companies over the years, and in some cases over a number of decades.  Inevitably, therefore, readers will notice lacunae in our discussion of English National Ballet (ENB) now & then (and please feel free to object!), but part of what makes this particular post so personal to us is the selection of directors, dancers, and repertoire that are alive in our memories and consequently form the foundation of our tribute to the Company in its 70th anniversary year.

For our Now section we are focussing on the period from 2012, that is, the period of Tamara Rojo’s directorship, as the steady realisation of her vision for the Company has already had a significant impact on both ENB itself and on ballet as an art form in Britain. 

ENB Now

It comes as no surprise to us that as a director Rojo has a very clear vision for her company.  After all, as a ballerina she has always expressed exceptional vision, demonstrated in the distinctive way in which she shapes her articulation of choreography and character.  This is evident in recordings of her work portraying a gamut of complex characters, from Marius Petipa’s Nikiya (La Bayadère, 1877), Kenneth MacMillan’s Juliet (1965) and Manon (1974) to Ashton’s Isadora (1976) and Akram Khan’s Giselle (2016).  Rojo’s distinctiveness, the intensity of her commitment to performance and dramatic cogency in her repertoire, has been commented on by critics including Zoë Anderson, Sarah Crompton, Luke Jennings (“Step into the Past), and Judith Mackrell (“Giselle”).  These qualities seem to us to be integral to what dance writer Graham Watts describes as being “possessed of an exceptional independence of spirit and a remarkable enquiry into [her] art”.

As expressed in their 2017-2018 Annual Review, ENB aims to “develop the art form of ballet by commissioning new choreography, design and musical composition as well as cherishing the classical repertoire” (5).  So let’s have a look at how ENB’s choice of repertoire reflects these aims …

Rojo’s very first season as Artistic Director opened with Kenneth MacMillan’s production of The Sleeping Beauty, which had been in repertoire since 2005.  The Sleeping Beauty is widely perceived as the pinnacle of classical ballet (Dodge; “The Sleeping Beauty Live”; Speer), and indeed, when we witnessed its revival in 2018 with Jurgita Dronina in the title role, it did indeed look “cherished”, as also attested by the critics (Anderson; Gilbert; Jennings “English National Ballet”).  Something that is very noticeable about the 19thcentury repertoire when performed by this company is the attention paid to stylistic detail, with the result that each work makes a quite different visual impact, as we have written about previously.  In our view this makes for extremely satisfying watching: not only is there a visible distinction between Romantic and classical styles, but even within those eras, there is clear differentiation between the specific articulation of the choreographies.  For example, dance writer Judith Mackrell highlights some of the key features of Bournonville’s style in Isaac Hernández’ “beautifully filleted beats and bounding jetés” as James in La Sylphide, and in the way in which Daniel Kraus as Gurn “joyously embod[ies] the mobile twists and turns of Bournonville’s épaulement” (“Song of the Earth).  In contrast, Giselle is distinguished by the careful schooling of the corps de ballet in the 19th century French style “as is apparent in their softly rounded arms and restrained line” (Jennings “Giselle Review”), while performances of the Russian Imperial Sleeping Beauty “evince …an absolute commitment to classical style and stage manners …You can see the concentration on the placement of arms and shoulders, on the expressiveness of wrists and hands, on the line of the neck and precise direction of gaze” (Jennings “English National Ballet”).  

ENBS students peform La Sylphide as part of ENB’s 70th Gala (c) Bill Cooper

Like The Sleeping BeautyLe Corsaire was choreographed by Marius Petipa for the Russian Imperial court.  But unlike The Sleeping Beauty, which holds a special place in British ballet history, the complete Le Corsaire is a recent addition to the British repertoire, having been staged for the first time in this country by English National Ballet in 2013.  And unlike The Sleeping BeautyLe Corsaire requires the kind of extravagant bravura in both classical and character dancing that is not generally associated with English style ballet.  Yet the Company has risen to this challenge with great spirit and self-assurance.  This was noted in reviews (Byrne; Gilbert; Winship), as well as in our own “In Conversation” post. Emma Byrne’s headline description “A swaggering, bravura spectacle” already conveys a strong sense of the dancers’ bold commitment to the style, as does Jenny Gilbert’s rendition of Jeffrey Cirio’s Ali, who “wins the biggest cheers of the night for his aerial fireworks, explosive energy following through to the tips of his fingers”.  We found it fascinating to discover as part of our research that ENB President Beryl Grey had discussed her thoughts on the Russian tradition of performing as part of her “Desert Island Discs”.  These thoughts were based on her first-hand experiences of dancing with the Bolshoi Ballet (more of Beryl Grey in the “Then” section of this post):

The dancers, they lived every single small role up to the biggest role … And I think you have in the Russian dancers this tremendous capacity to make believe.  And they’re never embarrassed – the ones I worked with anyway were never embarrassed  – whereas, in England … in my days one sort of half acted … until the performance … but in Russia every single rehearsal was full out, like a performance, and they actually get into the roles and live them truly. (31:12-32:13)

Let’s turn to Jenny Gilbert once again to reaffirm the achievement of ENB in this ballet, and make a connection between their physical commitment to the style and Grey’s description above: 

The plot [of Le Corsaire] is, frankly, ridiculous … It’s the sort of hokum it normally takes a Russian company to bring off, but English National Ballet meets the challenge with a swagger in its revival of Anna-Marie Holmes’s 2013 production.

So while the collection of works itself is of course significant, the understanding of style conveyed through the performance of those works demonstrates a commitment to “cherishing” the choreography rather than simply maintaining the works within the repertoire.  Jennings attributes this commitment to Rojo and her teaching staff (“English National Ballet”), as do we ourselves, having had the opportunity to watch her in rehearsal as well as in performance.  Further, one of the benefits of the Covid-19 lockdown seems to have been an increased number of opportunities to hear discussions with Rojo on various aspects of her professional life as both director and dancer.  From one of these discussions we are given an insight into Rojo’s hunger for knowledge and understanding, and her creative thinking in the face of adversity:

One thing that I thought was a negative when I was young has turned out to be a great positive … I did not come from any consolidated, respected ballet school:  I did not come from Paris Opera, from the Bolshoi, from the Mariinsky, from the Royal Ballet School.  And I always felt that I did not belong to one particular school and that that was a minus.  But in a way that actually was a huge plus, because first of all it gave me this imposter syndrome that meant that I kind of researched like a crazy person every aspect of each style, feeling that I had to do extra work because I wasn’t part of it. (“Tom and Ty Talk 23:12-23:58”)

As for ENB’s aim to develop the art form of ballet, there is ample evidence of this.  Amongst the names of choreographers who have created new work for the Company are William Forsythe, Akram Khan, Annabelle Lopez-Ochoa, Russell Maliphant and Yabin Wang, all of whom have demonstrated challenges to traditional ballet in their commissioned works for ENB.  This is completely in line with Rojo’s vision for her Company, her belief in ballet as an art form and her dedication to its continuing relevance. 

English National Ballet in Playlist (Track 2) as part of the Company’s 70th Gala (c) Bill Cooper

There is no doubt in our minds that the jewel in the crown of ENB’s new repertoire since 2012 is Akram Khan’s Giselle.  In an interview with Keke Chele of JoBurg Ballet, Rojo explained her decision to commission Akram Khan to reimagine the canonical Giselle:

I’ve always been fascinated by ballet history, and in my opinion it has been when our artform has been “polluted” (like the traditionalists would say) by other types of dance, whether that was folklore or musics that were not considered proper for ballet, or themes, you know like when Kenneth MacMillan started to introduce Manon, Mayerling, or you know, by different, like cross-fertilisation, is when I think cultures become better and arts become better, and that was my motivation to bring Akram.  This is an exceptional artist that I’ve admired for many years, that I’ve seen so many of his shows that had such capacity for story-telling and such strong technique of his own, that was kathak and contemporary, that I knew that he will understand an art form that is equally demanding in technique – the classical technique of ballet – but also that in itself it is a language to tell stories.  (“JoBurg Ballet Off Stage” 18:00-19:04 )

English National Ballet in Dust by Akram Khan © Bill Cooper

What we find extraordinary about Rojo is the way in which her insight into ballet history has driven her decisions as Artistic Director.  In her intrepid interrogation of ballet and its potential, she seems to have revived the spirit of Serge Diaghilev, the redoubtable impresario and founder of the Ballets Russes, whose leadership and exceptional vision engendered such radical but enduring works as Bronislava Nijinka’s Les Noces (1923) and George Balanchine’s Apollo (1927).

Fabian Reimair and Tamara Rojo in Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s Broken Wings part of English National Ballet’s 70th Anniversary Gala (c) Laurent Liotardo

ENB Then

We first encountered the Company in the 1970s.  Some of the ballets we saw in the late 1970s and early 1980s have made an enduring impression on us.  We can still remember the curtain rising on the white opening tableau of Les Sylphides (Fokine, 1909) and the hushed atmosphere as the dancers seemed to float downstage.  The great Danish mime artist Niels Bjørn Larsen was unforgettable in his charismatic rendition of Madge in La Sylphide (Bournonville, 1836), as was the verve of the corps de ballet in the reel, and the poignancy of Eva Evdokimova’s Sylphide as her sight fails before her death.  And what a thrill was Etudes (Lander, 1948) with its seemingly inexorable build-up to the final climax and its sense of competition between the male dancers, particularly when performed by such brilliant virtuosi as Peter Schaufuss, Patrice Bart and Patrick Armand.

But in addition to the imprint these works made on our memories, within this tiny selection of repertoire we can see two distinct trends in the repertoire of London Festival Ballet: the highlighting of the Romantic heritage, and the connection with Danish ballet tradition – trends that Jane Pritchard, Archive Consultant to ENB, has drawn attention to.  This is also borne out by lists of repertoire in programmes from the 1950s and early 1960s.  These included Anton Dolin’s production of Giselle (Coralli/Perrot, 1841) and his reconstruction of Pas de Quatre (Perrot, 1844); the final act of Bournonville’s Napoli (1846) and the pas de deux from his 1858 Flower Festival in Genzano; and from 1909 and 1910 Fokine’s evocations of the Romantic era – Les Sylphides and Le Spectre de la rose.

PAVLOVA on TV Alicia Markova and Milorad Miskovitch dancing Giselle – January 1956 Credit: Royal Academy of Dance / ArenaPAL

As we wrote in our first Giselle post, Alicia Markova, who established the Company in 1950 with Anton Dolin, also performed the eponymous heroine in the first British production of the ballet in 1934, after which she became associated with the ballet through the course of her career.  Dolin’s production of the ballet was one of the first complete 19th century works to be mounted by Festival Ballet, and according to Pritchard, Markova’s initial involvement in the Company was dependent on having a new production of Giselle created specifically for her, thereby placing this work “at the heart of” ENB.   Mary Skeaping’s 1971 staging, commissioned by Beryl Grey,  was an extremely important production due the intensive historical research Skeaping had undertaken, which in our opinion gives the ballet more dramatic cogency, as well as a vivid sense of Romantic ballet style.  This, our favourite production of Giselle, has been performed by the Company with luminaries of the stature of Rudolf Nureyev and Natalia Makarova, and still receives excellent notices (Crompton; Jays; Watts “English National Ballet’s Exceptional”; Watts “Review”).   

GISELLE Alicia Markova and Michael Somes Sadler’s Wells Ballet Royal Opera House – Covent Garden London – 1948 Credit: Royal Academy of Dance / ArenaPAL

The first time Markova performed in Fokine’s Les Sylphides, his tribute to la danse ballonnée, she was only 15 or 16 years old.  However, only six years later, and only two months after her debut with the Company in 1932, she mounted the ballet for the Vic-Wells (later Royal Ballet) (Bland 30). Subsequently Markova staged further productions: for American Ballet Theatre (1964), Northern Ballet Theatre (1979), and for our present discussion most importantly her 1976 staging for London Festival Ballet.  Although we never saw Markova perform, Rosie has a memory of a photograph of Markova in Les Sylphides from her very first ballet book (which she still possesses), The Girls’ Book of Ballet by A. H. Franks, and was always struck by a quote from Markova about her relationship with the audience: “I do not try to reach out to them; I draw them in to me” (60).  In a way Markova continues to draw people to her through recordings of her performances in Giselleand Les Sylphides – recordings originally made in the early 1950s that therefore suggest the importance of these ballets for her career.  In fact, the 1951 film of Giselle, with Dolin as Albrecht, is also significant as the oldest surviving recording of English National Ballet.

Therefore, in our minds, through Alicia Markova, Beryl Grey and Mary Skeaping, English National Ballet is undeniably a curator of Romantic style repertoire.  As if to emphasise the importance of Romantic themes in the repertoire, Giselle was sometimes performed in a double bill with Le Spectre de la rose, as in the 1976 London Coliseum spring season.

BBC T.V. – LES SYLPHIDES – April 1953 Production and Rehearsals ALICIA MARKOVA / JOHN FIELD Credit: Royal Academy of Dance / ArenaPAL Les Sylphides La Sylphide http://www.arenapal.com

In the early years, the Danish tradition was represented by the two dancers Flemming Flindt and Toni Lander, both of whom had trained at the Royal Danish Ballet School before being accepted into the Copenhagen company.  Additionally, in 1955 Lander’s husband Harald staged his work Etudes, which was chosen as the climax to the 70th Anniversary Gala performances, having become a signature ballet for the Company with a total of over 700 performances over the years.  Another delicious nugget of information we uncovered was that it was Harald Lander who mounted ENB’s first Coppélia.  This was a re-staging of the Danish production first performed in 1896 and “carefully preserved” first by Ballet Master Hans Beck and later by Lander himself (Hall 57). 

In the 1970s and 1980s Festival Ballet’s connection with the Romantic and Danish traditions was consolidated and enriched through the dancer and director Peter Schaufuss.  Son of two Royal Danish Ballet dancers, and another graduate of the Royal Danish Ballet School, Schaufuss danced with the Company for much of the 1970s and into the early 1980s before becoming Artistic Director.  In 1978 he mounted his production of La Sylphide for the first time, with the exquisite and ethereal Eva Evdokimova, renowned for her portrayal of Romantic roles, in the eponymous role, and the supreme Niels Bjørn Larsen as Madge.  Ten years later he bestowed another jewel from the Danish tradition on the Company: Bournonville’s three act Napoli (1842).

SLEEPING BEAUTY – ACT II (The Vision) 1946 MARGOT FONTEYN / BERYL GREY Credit: Royal Academy of Dance / ArenaPAL http://www.arenapal.com

In our very first British Ballet Now and Then post we explored how The Nutcracker (Ivanov, 1892) became a family Christmas tradition in this country, largely through the work of ENB, who began performing it in its very first season.  By the time Grey took over as Artistic Director in 1968, the Company were also performing full-length productions of The Sleeping Beauty (Petipa, 1890) and Swan Lake (Petipa/Ivanov, 1895).  London Festival Ballet programme notes from 1976 emphasise Grey’s involvement in new productions of these works for the Company.  

SWAN LAKE, Photocall, Bryan Ashbridge and Beryl Grey, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, UK, May 1960, Credit: Royal Academy of Dance / ArenaPAL http://www.arenapal.com

It seems that just as Markova had a special relationship with the ballets Giselle and Les Sylphides, Grey had a special relationship with the ballet Swan Lake, not only due to the extraordinary fact that she performed the dual role of Odette/Odile for the first time on her fifteenth birthday, but also because she was the first Western ballerina to dance in Soviet Russia and in Beijing, and danced this ballet on both occasions.

SLEEPING BEAUTY rehearsal March 1959 Sadler’s Wells Ballet – Covent Garden Beryl Grey / Caj Selling with Errol Addison Credit: Royal Academy of Dance / ArenaPAL

Grey had been a ballerina with the Royal Ballet and performed the Lilac Fairy to Margot Fonteyn’s Aurora at the famous reopening of the Royal Opera House after World War II.  Although Ninette de Valois evidently told Grey she would never dance Aurora as she was “far too tall to manage the attitude balances” of the “Rose Adagio”, Grey was determined to prove her wrong, and in fact she performed the role towards the end of that same season, just after her nineteenth birthday (Grey 51, 54).  When Grey performed in China, she also took the opportunity to assist in staging The Sleeping Beauty (195).  Although Grey first danced Giselle as a sixteen-year-old, and also performed the role in the Soviet Union, she is perhaps more associated with the character of Myrthe, which she danced to Fonteyn’s Giselle.  We loved the discovery that Grey performed the Queen of the Wilis when Markova and Dolin danced in Giselle at the Royal Opera House in 1948, bringing these three key figures together on the stage.  In the same year Swan Lake was added to the repertoire at Covent Garden.  In her autobiography Grey expresses her excitement at the prospect of dancing her favourite role on the Royal Opera House stage (68). 

SWAN LAKE – February 1959 Music: Tchaikovsky Royal Ballet – Covent Garden Beryl Grey and Caj Selling Credit: Royal Academy of Dance / ArenaPAL

No doubt we take it for granted that the London Coliseum is a major venue for English National Ballet. However, it was not until Grey’s tenure as Artistic Director that the Company started to perform regular seasons there.  Having first-hand experience of The Sleeping BeautyGiselle and Swan Lake in large-scale productions at the Royal Opera House, the Metropolitan Opera House New York and the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, Grey understood the power of these ballets for the audience, and their importance for the prestige and development of a company.  Therefore, negotiating seasons at the Coliseum where spectacular productions could be presented in an appropriately lavish environment seems like a significant step to us.  

As performers, Alicia Markova, Beryl Grey and Peter Schaufuss were all international stars, intrepid individuals who went on to shape the repertoire of ENB by incorporating and highlighting specific traditions associated with their prestigious dancing careers, thereby contributing to the Company’s distinctive identity.  In addition, as directors, Grey and Schaufuss launched major initiatives to bring a greater stability and sense of permanence to the Company: Grey secured Markova House as the Company’s first permanent home in 1976, while twelve years later Schaufuss, coming from one of the oldest ballet schools in the world, established English National Ballet School.  

PAVLOVA on TV. Alicia Markova dancing Giselle – January 1956 Credit: Royal Academy of Dance / ArenaPAL

Concluding Thoughts on ENB Now and Then

In 1993 Pritchard wrote: “English National Ballet has never been a notably innovative company determined to challenge its audience” (450).  Sixteen years later Sanjoy Roy made a similar comment, but framed it in more specific terms, portraying the decision not to challenge audiences as a pragmatic choice: “Like many other big ballet companies, ENB is cautious about programming too many modern works in case it loses audiences”.   

In January 2020 however, at the English National Ballet Gala Celebration, the Company that we witnessed hardly seemed to be “cautious about programming” or unwilling to “challenge its audience”.  The celebration garnered glowing reviews attesting to both the strength and vigour of the dancers, and the diversity and richness of the repertoire (Gaisford; Guerreiro; Watts; Weiss).  For us the Gala marked not only seventy years of Company history, but also over seven years of Tamara Rojo’s leadership.  We not only witnessed a company at the top of its game, but were excited about the inventive and well-laid plans for the future, as ENB entered a new phase of development with brand new purpose-built premises.  

As we all know, the year has not gone to plan for any of us.  Nonetheless, with its forthcoming digital season, including works by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Russell Maliphant and Stina Quagebur, it would be difficult to recognise the Company in its current form from the words of Pritchard and Roy.  In our opinion it has now evolved into an innovative company that frequently challenges its audiences with unfamiliar movement and music styles, and subject matter, while still “delighting them with the traditional” (English National Ballet 4).  And in keeping with the optimism of their new address on Hopewell Square, we believe that ENB will continue to fulfil its vision of “celebrat[ing] the tradition of great classical ballet while embracing change, evolving the art form for future generations and encouraging audiences to deepen their engagement” (5).

Next time on British Ballet Now and Then … This season English National Ballet planned a restaging of Marius Petipa’s 1898 Raymonda based on a retelling of the narrative with Florence Nightingale at its heart.  In response to this we will consider how British ballet choreographers and directors have ensured the continuing relevance of ballet as an art form.

© British Ballet Now and Then

References

Anderson, Zoë. “Marguerite and Armand”. Independent, 13 Feb. 2013, http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/theatre-dance/reviews/marguerite-and-armand-the-royal-ballet-sergei-polunin-and-tamara-rojo-royal-opera-house-london-8492773.html. Accessed 6 Sept. 2020.

Bland, Alexander. The Royal Ballet: the first 50 years. Royal Opera House, 1981.

Brown, Ismene. “Rojo is Queen of the Swans”. The Telegraph, 29 Nov. 2002 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/theatre/dance/3586430/Rojo-is-queen-of-the-Swan-Queens.html, . Accessed 6 Sept. 2020.

Byrne, Emma. “English National Ballet/Le Corsaire review: A swaggering, bravura spectacle”. Evening Standard, 9 Jan. 2020, English National Ballet/Le Corsaire review: A swaggering, bravura spectacle. Accessed 9 Aug. 2020.

Crompton, Sarah. “Review: Giselle (English National Ballet, London Coliseum)”. WhatsOnStage, http://www.whatsonstage.com/london-theatre/reviews/giselle-english-national-ballet-coliseum_42636.html. Accessed 15 Aug. 2020.

—. “Radiant Rojo Brings Fairytale Alive”. The Telegraph, 13 Nov. 2006, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/theatre/dance/3656529/Radiant-Rojo-brings-fairytale-alive.html. Accessed 6 Sept. 2020.

“Desert Island Discs: Dame Beryl Grey”. BBC Radio 4, 10 Mar. 2002, http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p0094805. Accessed 10 Aug. 2020.

Dodge, Laura. “Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Sleeping Beauty – a lavish production of a magical fairy tale. bachtrack, 20 Oct. 2013, https://bachtrack.com/review-oct-2013-birmingham-royal-ballet-sleeping-beautny-sadlers-wells. Accessed 7 Aug. 2020.

English National Ballet. Annual Review 2017-2018. Accessed 20 Sept. 2020.

Franks, A. H., The Girls’ Book of Ballet. Burke, 1960.

Gaisford, Sue. “English National Ballet 70th Anniversary Gala, Coliseum review – a fine celebration. The Arts Desk, 22 Jan. 2020, https://theartsdesk.com/dance/english-national-ballet-70th-anniversary-gala-coliseum-review-fine-celebration. Accessed 20 Sept. 2020.

“Giselle recording with Alicia Markova and Anton Dolin”. YouTube, uploaded by English National Ballet, 16 Jan. 2017, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7HnNXvF0Kn0&feature=youtu.be. Accessed 18 Sept. 2020.

Gilbert, Jenny. The I newspaper, 9 Jan. 2020, https://inews.co.uk/culture/arts/le-corsaire-london-coliseum-review-this-flamboyant-ballet-is-a-tonic-for-the-january-blues-english-national-tickets-383518. Accessed 9 ug. 2020.

Grey, Beryl. For the Love of Dance. Oberon, 2017.

Guerreiro, Teresa.   “ENB’s anniversary gala review”. CutlureWhisper, 18 Jan. 2020, http://www.culturewhisper.com/r/dance/english_national_ballet_anniversary_galas_coliseum/14791 Accessed 20 Sept. 2020.

Hall, George A. London’s Festival Ballet Annual 1956-57. Gray’s Inn Press, 1957.

Jays, David. “Giselle review – Alina Cojocaru is sublime in signature role”. The Guardian, 12 Jan. 2017, http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2017/jan/12/giselle-coliseum-london-english-national-ballet-review-alina-cojocaru. Accessed 15 Aug. 2020.

Jennings, Luke. “English National Ballet: The Sleeping Beauty review – a way with the fairies”, The Guardian, June 2018, http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2018/jun/10/english-national-ballet-sleeping-beauty-review-alina-cojacaru. Accessed 7 Aug., 2020.

—. “Giselle Review – Xander Parish Steals the Show”. The Guardian, 22 Jan. 2017, http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2017/jan/22/giselle-review-english-national-ballet-coliseum-xander-parish-laurretta-summerscales. Accessed 7 Sept. 2020.

—. “Step into the Past”. The Guardian, 12 Mar. 2006, http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2006/mar/12/dance. Accessed 6 Sept. 2020.

“JoBurg Ballet Offstage: Tamara Rojo”. Instagram, 30 July 2020, http://www.instagram.com/tv/CDRo3OtFI1o/?igshid=up23dsd6movc. Accessed 9 Aug. 2020. 

Pritchard, Jane. “English National Ballet”. The International Dictionary of Ballet, edited by Martha Bremser, St James Press, 1993, pp. 450-5.

Mackrell, Judith. “Giselle”. The Guardian, 15 Jan. 2004, http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2004/jan/15/dance. Accessed 6 Sept. 2020.

—. “Giselle- a Romantic Ballet”. English National Ballet, Programme, Belfast, 2017.

—. “Song of the Earth/La Sylphide review – Rojo powers a demanding double bill”. The Guardian, 10 Jan. 2018, http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2018/jan/10/song-earth-sylphide-review-coliseum-london-english-national-ballet-rojo. Accessed 7 Sept. 2020.

Roy, Sanjoy. “Step-by-step guide to dance: English National Ballet”. The Guardian, 16 Jun. 2009, http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2009/jun/16/guide-dance-english-national-ballet. Accessed 16 Sept. 2020.

“THE SLEEPING BEAUTY LIVE from the Royal Ballet”. YouTube, uploaded by More2Screen, 8 Nov. 2011, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LuncvxSDIiY&feature=youtu.be. Accessed 7 Aug. 2020.

Speer, Dean. “Pacific Northwest Ballet: the pinnacle”. CriticalDance, 2 Feb. 2019, https://criticaldance.org/pacific-northwest-ballet-pinnacle/. Accessed 7 Aug. 2020.

“‘Les Sylphides’ Part 1”. YouTube, uploaded by John Hall, 31 Aug. 2013, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EqKyGBbYNXs. Accessed 20 Sept. 2020.

“‘Les Sylphides’ Part 2”. YouTube, uploaded by John Hall, 31 Aug. 2013, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AelTZYoc2_U&t=44s. Accessed 20 Sept. 2020.

“Tom and Ty Talk: ‘Ballet is honest’ with Tamara Rojo”. Tom and Ty Talk, 19 June 2020, https://pod.co/tom-and-ty-talk. Accessed 19 July 2020.

Watts, Graham. “English National Ballet’s Exceptional Giselle”. Backtrack, 14 Jan. 2017, https://bachtrack.com/review-giselle-skeaping-cojocaru-english-national-ballet-coliseum-london-january-2017. Accessed 15 Aug. 2020.

—. “Review – English National Ballet – Giselle – London Coliseum”. Londondance, 23 Jan. 2017, http://londondance.com/articles/reviews/english-national-ballet-giselle-london-coliseum-1/. Accessed 15 Aug. 2020.

—. “Review: Royal Ballet – The Sleeping Beauty – Royal Opera House”. Londondance, 24 Feb. 2014, http://londondance.com/articles/reviews/royal-ballet-sleeping-beauty-2014/. Accessed 6 Sept. 2020.

—. “A roller-coaster of diverse dance as English National Ballet celebrates its 70th anniversary”. Bachtrack, 19 Jan. 2020,  https://bachtrack.com/review-english-national-ballet-70-anniversary-gala-coliseum-london-january-2020. Accessed 20 Sept. 2020.

Weiss, Deborah. “English National Ballet – 70th Anniversary Gala – London”.  DanceTabs, 20 Jan. 2020, https://dancetabs.com/2020/01/englishnational-ballet-70th-anniversary-gala-london/. Accessed 20 Sept. 2020.

Winship, Lyndsey. “English National Ballet: Le Corsaire review – firecracker dancing”. The Guardian, 9 Jan. 2020, http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2020/jan/09/english-national-ballet-le-corsaire-review-firecracker-dancing. Accessed 9 Aug. 2020.

Giselle Now & Then

Giselle Now 

We need to talk about Giselle! This ballet has recently been in the limelight in the UK, primarily because of Akram Khan’s imaginative and compelling 2016 reworking of the much-loved ballet for English National Ballet, quickly followed by the same Company’s restaging of their traditional Mary Skeaping production, first mounted in 1971, with all its beautiful attention to detail and period style. 

But in this post we’re going to focus on dancers rather than on productions.  Famously, Théophile Gautier, the Romantic ballet critic, poet and librettist of Giselle compared the two most celebrated ballerinas of the era, Marie Taglioni and Fanny Elssler in contrasting terms: Taglioni as spiritual, “Christian” and aerial, and Elssler as material, “pagan” and “voluptuous” (431, 433). It was thought by the creators of Giselle that the ballerina Carlotta Grisi who originated the role embodied both sets of qualities.  In the spirit and tradition of Gautier, some current critics also highlight contrasting qualities in the ballerinas’ portrayals of the character.  One of the most eloquent critics in this regard is Judith Mackrell, who in 2004 compared Alina Cojocaru with Tamara Rojo, and nine years later Olesya Novikova with Natalia Osipova.  Some of the contrasts she highlights are Cojocaru’s modesty and airiness pitted against Rojo’s “fizziness” in Act I and “radiant stillness” in Act II.  Similarly, Mackrell juxtaposes Novikova’s “fragility” “lightness” and “vulnerabilty” with Ospiova’s “terre à terre style”, “visceral portrait of pain” and “terrifying … supernatural force”.

For their run this season from 19th January to 9th March the Royal Ballet is offering no fewer than eight dancers in the role of Giselle, from established ballerinas Laura Morera and Marianela Núñez to the relative newcomers Francesca Hayward and Yasmine Naghdi, both making their debuts as Giselle this season.  Anton Dolin, who frequently danced Albrecht to Alicia Markova’s Giselle, describes the role of Giselle as “the supreme test for the classical ballerina” (A Portrait of Giselle).  So it’s exciting to anticipate which particular qualities Hayward and Naghdi will bring to the part.

Both young ballerinas have danced the Girl in Kenneth MacMillan’s The Invitation, as well as his eponymous heroine in Romeo and Juliet, to critical acclaim, so we know that they are capable of conveying youthful love, desire, longing and tragedy through their dancing and of making their own mark on a role through their individual interpretations and the way in which they articulate movement in accordance with the personal movement styles that they have developed.

Yasmine Naghdi, who plays the piano, sings and composes her own music, is perhaps unsurprisingly known for the musicality of her dancing.  Kadeem Hosein  evocatively describes how she “gathered up the harp’s music and sent it spilling off the tips of her fingers” when dancing the Sugar Plum Fairy.  With her generous port de bras and luscious lines, she has an amplitude that seems to fill the stage, and the poses that she strikes etch themselves on the memory. 

The fleet-footed Francesca Hayward has also been noted for her musical sensitivity.  Her coach Lesley Collier, herself known for her musicality, declares “you can feel the music travelling through her” (qtd. in Mackrell).  Speed of footwork is combined with a wonderful continuity of movement as she barely reaches a position before moving on to the next, thereby creating a seamless flow.  This quality is enhanced by the pliancy of her upper body and “hands and arms as light and sensitive as butterflies” (Ismene Brown). 

Giselle Then

Giselle was created in 1841 by the two choreographers Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot to music by Adolphe Adam.  It was extremely successful and so was staged in various European cities and in America in the years immediately following the premier.  However, London’s first exposure to Giselle was in the form of a play based on the ballet, a mere two months after the first performance in Paris (Beaumont 126).  Although the ballet Giselle was staged in London as early as 1842, ballet as a national art form didn’t become established until the 20th century in this country, so the first British production wasn’t staged until New Year’s Day 1934.  The performance was by the Vic-Wells (later Royal) Ballet with Alicia Markova in the title role.  Since then Giselle has been performed by numerous British ballet companies, including Ballet Rambert, Festival (later English National) Ballet, International Ballet, the Markova-Dolin Company, Northern Ballet Theatre and Scottish Ballet.  Therefore, the ballet has become a staple of the repertoire in this country, and numerous ballerinas have moved audiences with their rendition of Giselle.

We have chosen to focus on three ballerinas from the past.  Although Alicia Markova is an obvious choice as the first British Giselle, Nadia Nerina and Eva Evdokimova may not seem such obvious choices.  However, these ballerinas all made their mark as Giselle with British ballet companies, and in their different approaches, temperaments and individual dancing styles reflect the richness of opportunity offered by the role.  These three ballerinas can all be seen dancing at least sections of Giselle online or on DVD.

Now, you may already have encountered the ballerina Alicia Markova on British Ballet Now and Then, as she featured in our very first post on The Nutcracker.  In Britain her name became practically synonymous with Giselle, as she was not only the first British ballerina to dance the role, but she continued to dance in this ballet until she was well into her 40s.  In recognition of the importance of this role for career she wrote a memoir entitled Giselle and I.  Anton Dolin describes her as “one of the greatest Giselles of all time” (A Portrait of Giselle).  Writing in 2006, the venerable ballet critic Clement Crisp still seemed to her as the standard set for the role, highlighting the “incomparable lightness and clarity in her dancing”, her “effortless” technical achievements and her dramatic “genius” (78).

Like Markova, Evdokimova was known for the otherworldliness that she conveyed in her dancing – she was one of those dancers who seemed to inhabit the ether by nature.  You may not be as familiar with this ballerina as with Markova or Nerina.  Evdokimova was an important ballerina in the 1970s and 1980s with London Festival Ballet.  Although half American and half Bulgarian, and trained in Copenhagen and St. Petersburg as well as in London, it was her idea to change the name of London Festival Ballet to English National Ballet in order to acknowledge the importance of the Company in bringing ballet to different regions of Britain at affordable prices. 

While Markova and Evdokimova were both known for the ethereal quality of their dancing, their ethereality was in no way identical.  Markova was tiny, quick and apparently weightless, like thistledown.  The lissom, willowy Evdokomova portrayed supernatural qualities perhaps more through her seemingly boneless body that appeared to glide through the air with no effort and without ever stopping.  Ballet writer Richard Austin encapsulates this continuity of movement when he refers to the “magical unfolding” of her arabesque (75), or her arms rippling like water (25). Even in Act 1 she appeared to belong more to another world than to the everyday reality of village life, her performance being imbued with “spiritual beauty” (Austin 50).

The South African Nerina, on the other hand, was known for her ebullient nature, virtuosic technique, speed and attack.  She excelled as Swanilda in Coppélia, and Frederick Ashton chose her to create the role of Lise in his La Fille mal gardée. Therefore, perhaps it comes as no surprise that Nerina’s spirited and exuberant Giselle in Act I accentuates the character’s physical energy and human corporeality, and her expansive dancing in Act II seems more like an elemental force of nature arising from the wildness of the forest than a translucent wraith drawn from the ether (Giselle). 

Galina Ulanova, Carla Fracci and Natalia Makarova, all celebrated and individual exponents of Giselle, explain how their interpretations of Giselle continued to develop over the years, never remaining fixed (A Portrait of Giselle).  More recently, Tamara Rojo has stated that after over one hundred performances, she always finds something new in the role (Giselle: Belle of the Ballet).

So, it will not only be fascinating to see how Francseca Hayward and Yasmine Naghdi approach the role Giselle with all its wonderful possibilities for interpretation, but also to see how they develop the role in years to come.

Next time on British Ballet Now and Then … in recognition of English National Ballet’s revival of  Aszure Barton’s Fantastic Beings, we will be thinking about female choreographers in British ballet companies. 

References

A Portrait of Giselle. Kultur, 1982.

Austin, Richard. The Ballerina. Vision, 1974.

Beaumont, Cyril W. The Ballet Called Giselle. C. W. Beaumont, 1944.

Brown, Ismene. “This Juliet Needs a New Romeo”. The Spectator,             http://www.spectator.co.uk/2015/10/this-juliet-needs-a-new-romeo/. Accessed 16 Jan. 2018.

Crisp, Clement. “Alicia Markova: a sketch for a portrait”. Dance Research, vol. 24, no. 2, 2006, pp. 75-86.  

Gautier, Théophile. “Fanny Elssler in “La Tempête””.What is Dance? Oxford UP, 1983, pp. 431-34.

Giselle. British Broadcasting Corporation, 23 Nov. 1958. ICA Classics, 2011.         

Giselle: Belle of the Ballet, directed by Dominic Best, British Broadcasting Corporation with English National Ballet, 2 Apr. 2017.

Hosein, Kadeem. “Yasmine Naghdi’s Sugar Plum Shines in the Royal Ballet’s Nutcracker”. Online River, 26 Nov. 2016, http://riveronline.co.uk/review-yasmine-naghdis-sugar-plum-shines-in-the-royal-ballets-nutcracker/. Accessed 16 Jan. 2018.

Mackrell, Judith. “Giselle”,The Guardian, 15 Jan. 2004, http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2004/jan/15/dance. Accessed 7 Jan. 2018.

—. “The Mikhailovsky Ballet and a Tale of Two Giselles”,The Guardian, 25 Mar. 2013, http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2013/mar/25/mikhailovsky-ballet-london-season-giselle. Accessed 7 Jan. 2018.

Markova, Alicia. Giselle and I. Barry and Rockliff, 1960.

 © Rosemarie Gerhard 2018

 

 

 

 

Kenneth MacMillan’s Choral Works Now & Then

The Choral Works Now

Kenneth MacMillan’s choral works Song of the Earth (1965), Requiem (1976) and Gloria (1980) must surely number amongst the choreographer’s most eloquent, moving and beautifully crafted ballets.  Ideally we would have preferred all three of these ballets to be staged during this season of celebrating MacMillan’s oeuvre.  Even though this was not to be, happily both Song of the Earth and Gloria were not only performed as part of the celebrations, but were staged for the first time by English National Ballet (ENB) and Northern Ballet Theatre (NBT) respectively.

ENB’s first performance of Song of the Earth took place in October in a double bill with La Sylphide in Manchester, while Gloria opened with NBT in Bradford in a triple bill of MacMillan’s work.  The companies also performed the ballets at the Royal Opera House as part of Kenneth MacMillan: a National Celebration, alongside performances by both Royal Ballet Companies and Scottish Ballet that spanned the decades of the choreographer’s creative life.  Fortunately there are still opportunities to see Song of the Earth at the London Coliseum (9th – 13th January) and Gloria at the Leeds Grand Theatre (16th – 17th March).

In case you’re not familiar with these ballets, here is a brief overview.  All three works are set to examples of iconic choral music that had lives of their own well before MacMillan created his choreography to them: Gustav Mahler’s Song of the Earth (1909), Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem (1890) and Benjamin Britten’s Gloria (1959).  All of them deal with existential themes, including the omnipresence of death in our lives, the unnecessary loss of life, especially young life, to war, and the laying to rest of the soul in death.

Unlike MacMillan’s famous evening-length works, such as Romeo and Juliet and Manon, these are not heavily narrative ballets and are relatively sparse in design.  In place of a narrative are intensely evocative images that arise from the themes, music score and lyrics.  An example is the famous image of eternity that closes Song of the Earth: to the elongated notes of the repeated word ewig, meaning forever, the three main figures (The Woman, The Man and The Eternal One or Messenger of Death) gradually move towards the audience, slowly rising and falling, rising and falling, rising and falling, with no break in the flow… Still rising and falling as the curtain falls.

Requiem was visually inspired by the drawings of William Blake.  Here the characters are more fluid than in Song of the Earth.  The central female character in white chiffon sometimes seems childlike, other times angelic (Parry 461-62); when she enfolds the male figure in a stylised embrace she appears maternal. Similarly, this male character can be interpreted in more than one way: in his loin cloth, is he a reference to Christ or to John the Baptist (462)?  Even the corps de ballet in Requiem can be perceived in contrasting ways, as both “mourners and blessed spirits” (462).

Gloria, inspired by Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth, clearly references the trench warfare of World War I.  Sacrifice and loss are suggested by the configuration of the dancers in the shape of crucifixes.  Towards the end of the ballet the lead female dancer is supported by the two main male characters in a similar pose; in her ethereality and with her elongated but soft arms draped along their arms, she is also reminiscent of Giselle in Act II protecting Albrecht by the cross on her grave.

In recent years the principal roles in these choral ballets have been performed by such Royal Ballet luminaries as Carlos Acosta, Leanne Benjamin, Nehemiah Kish, Sarah Lamb, Laura Morera, Marianela Núñez, Tamara Rojo, Thiago Soares and Edward Watson. In fact, Song of the Earth was chosen by Darcey Bussell for her farewell performance at the Royal Opera House in 2007.

But Song of the Earth did not always enjoy the status it has nowadays. In 1965 it was quite a different story …

 

The Choral Works Then

Song of the Earth, Requiem, and Gloria are without doubt compelling works due to the imaginative and expressive choreography and perhaps because they are so rich in symbolism and allusion. And their history is equally compelling.

MacMillan is celebrated as a choreographer who was eager to extend ballet where subject matter was concerned, for example through the portrayal of rape in The Invitation (1958) or the depiction of a Nazi concentration camp in Valley of Shadows (1983).  However, the themes explored in the choral works were hardly new to ballet.  What was new was the treatment of those themes, how they were expressed.

In the Romantic era, when ballet enjoyed a great flourishing, themes of death, love, loss, evil, the spirit world, the afterlife, and the human soul were integral to ballet. These themes were expressed through symbols and metaphors in the narratives and characters of the ballets, and are still clear to see today in the two most celebrated works of the era: La Sylphide created in 1832 by Filippo Taglioni, and Giselle choreographed by Jean Coralli and Jules Perrot in 1841. Nowadays we might perceive the treatment of those themes to be rather quaint or naïve, although if we use some historical imagination, facilitated by last year’s documentary Giselle: Belle of the Ballet introduced by Tamara Rojo, with contributors David Allen (historian) and Marina Warner (mythologist), we might gain some insight into the kind of unsettling impact those works may have made in their early years.

It seems that the Royal Opera House Board members were similarly unsettled when MacMillan approached them about choreographing a ballet to Mahler’s Song of the Earth, as they rejected the idea on the grounds that “great music addressing elevated subjects, such a Mahler’s Song of the Earth, was unsuitable for ballet” (Parry 459).  If they did not recognise the similar “elevated subjects” within the Romantic repertoire, you would think that they might have been aware of them in Frederick Ashton’s wartime ballets, most famously Dante Sonata (1940). Evidently neither did they perceive the ballet music of composers such as Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky or Ravel to be “great music”.

The rejection from the Board was the reason why MacMillan mounted Song of the Earth on Stuttgart Ballet, where his friend John Cranko, another British choreographer, and mentor to MacMillan, was Artistic Director.  In Stuttgart the work proved to be a success.  So, only six months after the premiere in Stuttgart, the Royal Ballet staged Song of the Earth at Covent Garden, where it was “hailed as a major achievement” (Parry 305).

It would seem logical therefore that when MacMillan approached the Board in the mid-70s as Director of the Royal Ballet and Principal Choreographer, about creating a ballet to Fauré’s Requiem, that the response would be more positive than the reaction to the proposed Song of the Earth ballet.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Fearing that such a ballet might “offend the religious beliefs of the public at large” (MacMillan qtd. in Parry 459) the Board again refused to commission the work.   Again MacMillan staged the work in Stuttgart; and again the work entered the repertoire of the Royal Ballet, though not before he had staged his third choral work, Gloria, for the Royal Ballet, this time with no objection from the Board.  Interestingly, MacMillan had decided to give exclusive performance rights to Requiem to Stuttgart Ballet for six years, by which time Beryl Grey had requested it for London Festival Ballet (Parry 464), suggesting the growing significance of these choreographic works by the early 1980s.  In fact, in 1982, Gloria was recorded by Granada Television for transmission on Remembrance Sunday 1982 (556).

Currently the Royal Opera House website describes Song of the Earth in proud and glowing terms as “Kenneth MacMillan’s powerful exploration … of love, loss and renewal”; Requiem is described as “moving” and “boldly inventive” “with some striking pas de deux”.  In our opinion MacMillan’s persistence in following through his choral projects resulted in some of the most distinctive, innovative and expressive additions to the British ballet canon, and we are indeed fortunate not only in being given the opportunity to see two of these works, but also in benefitting from the ENB billing of  La Sylphide from the Romantic era juxtaposed with Song of the Earth – two works that demonstrate such contrasting approaches to themes of human frailty, love, loss and transcendence in the art form that we love.

This post is dedicated to Helen Boyle and Andrew Dilworth.

Next time on British Ballet Now and Then … to coincide with the young Royal Ballet principals Francesca Hayward and Yasmi Naghdi dancing the title role in Giselle, we will be thinking about celebrated Giselles of the past in British ballet companies.

References

Giselle: Belle of the Ballet, directed by Dominic Best, British Broadcasting Corporation with English National Ballet, 2 Apr. 2017.

Parry, Jan. Different Drummer: the life of Kenneth MacMillan. Faber and Faber, 2009.

Royal Opera House. “Requiem”, Royal Opera House, 2017, http://www.roh.org.uk/productions/song-of-the-earth-by-kenneth-macmillan. Accessed 4 Dec. 2017.

—. “Song of the Earth”, Royal Opera House, 2017, http://www.roh.org.uk/productions/song-of-the-earth-by-kenneth-macmillan. Accessed 4 Dec. 2017.

© Rosemarie Gerhard 2017