Watching with British Ballet Now & Then: ENB’s Reunion

The day has come at last! Monday 17 May 2021, and theatres are reopening, so we are off to Sadler’s Wells to watch English National Ballet’s Reunion—the live performances of the five films created last autumn: Take Five BluesSenseless KindnessLaid in EarthEchoes, and Jolly Folly.

And it’s Tamara Rojo’s birthday.  What could be more serendipitous?

The day has come at last, and we are excited, but also a bit apprehensive, as if we’re emerging from a bunker where we’ve been sheltering, and we’re not sure of the damage that might await us.

Twitter is awash with tweets about preparing to go to the theatre, concerns about donning “real” clothes (conveyed with great humour) and good wishes from all and sundry to theatres and museums that are reopening.  

We have received a long and detailed missive from Sadler’s Wells Theatre about staying safe before, during and after the performance.  It makes us feel a tad nervous, but overriding the nervousness is the curiosity about how it will feel to put on glad rags, get on a train and then meet together with hundreds of people in the same building; but hundreds fewer than usual.  How will people look? What masks will they be wearing? (We have purchased brand-new silk masks for the occasion.) How will they negotiate the space? How even will the theatre smell?  

Overriding the curiosity is the sense of building anticipation, reminding us of how slow the hours would pass as a teenager waiting to see one of our first ballets, The Sleeping Beauty or The Nutcracker, or great stars like Margot Fonteyn, Rudolf Nureyev, Gelsey Kirkland or Mikhail Baryshnikov.  Five works, all new to the stage, all to be performed in a single evening after over a year of absence from the theatre.  What better way to return to live performance? 

As we approach the theatre walking along Arlington Way, the area seems eerily still. But as soon as we turn the corner into Rosebery Avenue we are part of a milling crowd—not as big as usual, but enough to give us a familiar feel of the theatre.

Checking in is easy, and the staff are, as always, relaxed and friendly.

Everything seems just as usual—we’re so accustomed to people wearing masks by now that it doesn’t seem out of place, even in the theatre.  Once in the auditorium, there are little jokes about social distancing with the people sitting near us.  The Second Circle seems quite full, but with much more evenly spaced empty seats than those unfortunate occasions when not all the seats have been sold. 

Everything seems just as usual … until the lights go down and Artistic Director of Sadler’s Wells Alastair Spalding arrives on the stage with Patrick Harrison, Executive Director of English National Ballet.  They greet us with emotion in their voices, whereupon the theatre erupts with joyous cheers, whoops, clapping and stamping, to which we enthusiastically contribute.  

The buoyancy of the atmosphere continues to simmer throughout the evening, bubbling up to moments of explosive jubilation.  We’re lucky to be sitting near Shevelle Dynott, until recently a dancer with the Company, rooting for his friends with unrepressed enthusiasm.

As we knew from the films, each piece creates a different world.  In order for us to transition from one to the other without an interval or even a break, short clips are shown of the choreographers and dancers speaking about the works, some of which we remember from the mini documentaries that accompanied the films.  These introductions facilitate the shift from one created world to the next, like the wardrobe opening into Narnia …

The worlds are the same as we remember from the films, and yet they are different.  Sometimes the dramatic use of space throws relationships into more vivid relief, as in Yuri Possokhov’s Senseless Kindness, even if moments of intimacy and quietness resonate with poignancy as much from our memories as from what we are seeing in front of us on the stage.  

Emma Hawes and Isaac Hernandez in Senseless Kindness by Yuri Possokhov part of ENB’s Reunion © Laurent Liotardo

The stage space throbs with dramatic energy in Sidi Larbi Cherakoui’s Laid in Earth where the film’s forest and lake are replaced by a kind of wasteland, and the use of physical three-dimensional space evokes the characters’ shadowy reflections in the lake’s murky waters.  

Erina Takahashi and James Streeter in Laid in Earth by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui part of ENB’s Reunion © Laurent Liotardo
Jeffrey Cirio and James Streeter in Laid in Earth by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui ©Laurent Liotardo

Stina’s Quagebeur’s work strikes as the most familiar, but we can see some of her witty groupings with greater clarity as individual dancers unexpectedly fire themselves up into the air above the cluster surrounding them.  Russell Maliphant’s masterly use of lighting seems even more hypnotic on stage, as pulsating lights enfold us like waves into his world of Echoes, where the swirling seamless motion of dancers and light fuse together to transform the stage space. 

Angela Wood in Take Five Blues by Stina Quagebeur © Laurent Liotardo

Knowing the dancers as she does, Quagebeur (a dancer with the Company herself) brings out their personalities and individuality.  Areille Smith builds on her dancers’ characters to reveal new qualities that we feel more intently in the live performances and without the addition of the special effects: writ large is the devilry of Joe Caley, Ken Saruhashi and Erik Woolhouse; while Julia Conway and Francesca Velicu once again break forth from the chrysalis of their young ballerinadom to enter Jolly Folly’s boxing ring with spunkiness to spare, and then some.  

On-demand films give us choice: we can decide to watch whenever we want in whichever order – to match our calendar and our mood – including filling an unexpected free evening, or bringing some life to a dull lunch break. 

Live performance gives us choice: we can bring our focus to whichever aspect of the performance takes our fancy or draws our interest; we can take up the opportunity to watch multiple performances from different parts of theatre, and with different casts.

And live performances grow organically.  Even over the two weeks of this first run, performances have the chance to evolve with the same casts as well as with the insight of new casts.

As we leave, the sounds of the theatre are still ringing in our ears, and the visual images resonating in our mind’s eye.  

To be honest, we didn’t notice the smells of the theatre, but we were very happy that our masks were admired.

As is our wont, we have returned to watch further performances—the final two of the run.  The whole process of attending the theatre in accordance with safety guidance now seems familiar and quite normal, and we have already experienced the works live, so our attention is now more focused on the specific performances of the work.  On the Saturday night the Company is on fire: Fernando Carratalá Coloma, Henry Dowdon, Shiori Kase visibly revel in the quick-fire repartee of Take Five Blues, taking exhilarating risks with timing, balance, moments of suspension; in Laid in Earth Erina Takahashi exudes the intensity of presence that mesmerised us in her performance of Medea in Yabin Wang’s M-Dao; Francesco Gabriele Frola sears his way through Senseless Kindness.  The energy of Jolly Folly is intoxicating.  So enthralled are we by Echoes, that we could sit here watching it for the rest of the evening …

English National Ballet in Echoes by Russell Maliphant © Laurent Liotardo

The delight of watching an alternative cast is in seeing more of our favourite dancers that we haven’t seen for over year—Aitor Arietta, Sarah Kundi, James Streeter, Emily Suzui—and being surprised and uplifted by dancers less familiar to us, like Rebecca Blenkinsop, Noam Durand, Matei Holeleu, Natascha Mair, Anna-Babette Winkler. And we are thrilled to notice a different ratio of female to male dancers in Jolly Folly, meaning that one of the female dancers has taken the role created by Erik Woolhouse.  She’s performing it with great gusto.

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

In our opinion, it doesn’t take dramatic change for choreographic works to live, breathe and develop a life of their own: slight changes in the shaping of a gesture, a subtly different dynamic palette, a variation in the approach to space—all of these feed the work with new lifeblood. 

Attending live performances again, we realise how much we love the feeling of spontaneity both within and around us, as we catch our breath, laugh and cheer at various points in the show.  It’s all part and parcel of what make live theatre “so refreshingly uncertain”, as dance writer Graham Watts so aptly puts it.  

For pianist and composer Stephen Hough the audience is part of the performance in a “really intense way” (05:44).  The commitment of watching and of performing live is bound up with Hough’s understanding the way in which the transience and uncertainty of live performing arts gets to the very heart of what it means to be human: 

Whatever we’re enjoying has to end so that we can enjoy it again … I’m enjoying this cup of coffee very much now, but I don’t want it to last forever, because then I won’t be able to have my next cup of coffee and enjoy that too.  So this is the wonderful conundrum … of being a human being, of wanting to live forever, and yet the only way we can experience life is with things failing and passing and crumbling, and it’s the autumn turning into spring.  That’s what art is all about in some ways, isn’t it—you could almost trace all of the arts back to this fragility of existence, this longing to hold on to something, realising that you can’t, and within that contradiction is everything that we do in our artistic lives. (9:05-9:54) 

Long may we enjoy this conundrum, with many more live performances from the wonderful variety of British ballet companies.

Dedicated to Carla Fracci, who danced Giselle with London Festival Ballet (now ENB) as a young ballerina, and who died on May 27th this year: 

You don’t need to fix things. I hate [to fix things].  It’s how you feel … It’s the moment, that is important, it’s what you create, and this creates the performance. (1:26, 1:28)

© British Ballet Now and Then

References

Fracci, Carla. “’Giselle’ – A Documentary”. YouTube, uploaded by John Hall, 14 Apr. 2017, www.youtube.com/watch?v=–FVqDeLByY. Accessed 2 June 2021.

Hough, Stephen. “Music Matters: Music in the Moment”. BBC Sounds, 29 May 2021, www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/m000wkcy. Accessed 2 June 2021.

Watts, Graham. “Live dance returns to London: English National Ballet’s Reunion”. Bachtrack, 27 May 2021, https://bachtrack.com/review-english-national-ballet-reunion-sadlers-wells-may-2021. Accessed 2 June 2021.

Watching with British Ballet Now and Then: English National Ballet’s New Dance Films

We are excited.  This year has seen so many performances cancelled, new productions put on hold, new choreographies postponed. And now, over the weeks leading up to Christmas, English National Ballet are releasing five brand new dance films …

Take Five Blues

Photos: English National Ballet in Take Five Blues, a film by Shaun James Grant, choreographed by Stina Quagebeur © English National Ballet

Choreography: Stina Quagebeur

Filmmaker: Shaun James Grant

On a gloomy, overhung Thursday afternoon we are eager to see some positive signs of hope, even if only on our screens.

Take Five Blues begins with some of our favourite dancers entering the space … casually, as if in anticipation of the energy to come: Aitor Arietta, a long-time favourite; Fernando Carratalà Coloma, whom we admired so much as the Messenger of Death in Song of the Earth; Rentaro Nakaaki, who impressed us so much last year in Emerging Dancer; Katya Kaniukova, sassy as ever, and Shiori Kase with her joyous turns and luminous presence.

Choreographer Stina Quagebeur wants it to feel like we’re in the room with the dancers, and in fact we are reminded of watching class.  The visible energy.  The audible energy.  Moments of relaxation to take breath.  The spurring on of colleagues.  Personalities gleaming through the movement.  But the globes of soft light hanging over the dark stage space evoke an ambiance of a different ilk.

There is a serendipitous moment when Fernando Carratalà Coloma and Henry Dowden reach the height of a jump in complete synchrony.

Unwittingly our lecturer hats are donned and we start to admire the structure of the work: individual dancers merge into clumps of synchronous movement – they scoop down and reach forward, scoop and reach in an easy rhythm – and then peel off one by one.  Breathtaking virtuosic display is juxtaposed with movements in slow motion.  Roaming camera angles lend added texture to the patterns and rhythms of the choreography.  

But ultimately we are captivated by the buoyant sway of the dancing to the familiar tones and rhythms of Paul Desmond’s Take Five and Bach’s Vivace in Nigel Kennedy’s ebullient arrangement. We laugh as all the male dancers collapse to the floor at the end.

The gloom of the Thursday afternoon is gone.  

Senseless Kindness 

Photos: Isaac Hernandez, Francesco Gabriele Frola and Alison McWhinney in Senseless Kindness a film by Thomas James with choreography by Yuri Possokhov © English National Ballet & Emma Hawes and Francesco Gabriele Frola in Senseless Kindness a film by Thomas James with choreography by Yuri Possokhov © English National Ballet

Choreography: Yuri Possokhov

Filmmaker: Thomas James

From the trailer of Senseless Kindness we know that the tone is quite different from Take Five Blues.  Here darkness reflects a more melancholy and sombre mood.  While the whirling turns in Take Five Blues were exuberant in spirit, here Isaac Hernández spins himself into a vortex of frantic energy.

Monochrome hues, shafts of light steaming through the darkness create atmospheric spaces evoking sites of conflict and flight, fear and anxiety; and sites of momentary peace and joy.

The two couples, perfectly matched, conveying the sense of being connected by family, move fluidly together from shape to shape like kinetic sculpture.  Unison intensifies the sense of togetherness, but then the couples find their own spaces to express their own identities.

Shostakovich’s Piano Trio No. 1 catches at us with the tension of its edgy strings and percussive keyboard, giving rise to angular, staccato movement for the male dancers, performed with urgent attack and dramatic intensity.  Lyrical passages bring forth movements that melt into slow motion and blurred lines, like memories passing across the mind.  From time to time the dappled faces emerge and the camera hovers over tenderness, longing, sadness.  But then a smile crosses our lips at the warm playfulness of a pas de bourrée.

Speaking of the meaning of his work as a reflection of life, choreographer Yuri Possokhov muses: “so many negative things and so many positive things at the same time” (documentary 5:10-5:14).

Isaac Hernández’ vortical spins swiftly unravel into an ecstatic attitude reaching for the sky.

In Senseless Kindness everything is shadows and light.                  

Laid in Earth

Photos: James Streeter and Jeffrey Cirio in Laid in Earth, a film by Thomas James, choreographed by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui © English National Ballet

Choreography: Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui

Filmmaker: Thomas James

Twenty-four hours on and we are still haunted by Laid in Earth.  Images of a Stygian forest and lake flit through our heads.  The underworld has been recreated for us, inhabited by four beings who twist and curl like the gnarled branches surrounding them.  Sometimes their limbs mutate into branches.  Sometimes they fuse spookily with the forest itself, their bodies becoming sites for forest growth.  Jeffrey Cirio’s character rarely moves far from the ground: he slides and spins seamlessly over it, sinks softly into it, allowing gravity to release him down.  Mesmerizing costumes and make-up seal the oneness of dancers and their environment.  

Erina Takahashi’s distilled energy gives an eerie glow to her being, drawing us to her as the central figure. She almost takes the hand of her shadow Precious Adams, but they seem wary.  They reflect one another in the dark waters. James Streeter and Jeffrey Cirio mirror one another on the dark ground.  In the duet Erina Takahashi and James Streeter coil around one another in a dance of sorrow. 

Laid in Earth brings Giselle to mind – the Wilis inhabiting the shadowy forest, their hems damp from the water of the lake above which they hover, and maybe from the early morning dew as they dissolve into the morning’s mist.  Hearing Dido’s plangent tones “Remember me”, we recall the rosemary branch that transforms Giselle into a Wili

If everything in Senseless Kindness is shadows and light, then everything in Laid to Earth is shadows and darkness.

Echoes

Photo: Fernanda Oliveira and Fabian Reimair in Russell Maliphant’s Echoes a film by Michael Nunn & William Trevitt © English National-Ballet

Choreography: Russell Maliphant

Filmmakers: Michael Nunn & William Trevitt

Over the weeks we have noticed that all the new choreographies have different casts, so every week we are seeing different dancers.  For us it feels like a big bonus to see a range of dancers from the Company (not to mention its egalitarian spirit).  But it’s also exhilarating to watch the dancers being challenged by movement styles that are unfamiliar to them.  This is noticeable to us this week in Russell Maliphant’s Echoes.  In the documentary we particularly enjoy Fabian Reimar and Fernanda Oliviera talk about both the challenges and the satisfaction of working with Maliphant in the studio with his task-based approach to the creative process, the groundedness of his choreography, the liquid dynamic of his movement – “like the ocean”, as Fernanda says (1:00-1:02).

Fernanda and Fabian dancing together is like a pas de deux of the ocean waves.  Moving seamlessly together as one, waves of motion repeatedly merge into one another.

Along with Fabian Reimar, Isabelle Brouwers is a dancer whom we admire greatly.  Both can bring vibrant drama to the simplest of movements.  This we have witnessed in Akram Khan’s Giselle when they perform the Landlord and Bathilde respectively.  In Echoes we witness it once again as Fabian looms on the screen with his rich and resonant presence.  

When Isabelle dances in classical pas she radiates an incandescent glow.  In Echoes her glow is hushed, softly diffused, though ever present, subsumed in the hypnotic swirling of the group.

Again and again we note the soft passive weight of the dancers.  Then the movement accelerates, becoming electrifying as the dancers swiftly free flow between heavier passive weight and strong active weight.  The dance reaches its whirling crescendo.

As the piece moves to a close, alone on the stage, Junor Souza spirals continuously, an echo of what has passed that reverberates into the future as the image hovers in our minds …

And once again we leave our screen with optimism, not only about the survival of ballet, but even about its potential revival. 

Jolly Folly

Photos: English National Ballet in Jolly Folly, a film by Amy Becker-Burnett, choreographed by Arielle Smith © English National Ballet & Francesca Velicu, Ken Saruhashi and Julia Conway in Arielle Smith’s Jolly Folly a film by Amy Becker-Burnett © English National Ballet

Choreography: Arielle Smith

Filmmakers: Amy Becker-Burnett

Boxing Day.  Jolly Folly was released almost a week ago, but anything with the name Jolly Folly just seems to be made for Boxing Day.  And we’re told that this piece is reminiscent of “Old Hollywood”, and what else is Boxing Day for but whiling away the hours, spinning out the nostalgia over well loved classic movies?  The trailer has already revealed fantasy locations, and a single row of dancers scooting away from the line, one by one, in precise canon.  Busby Berkeley comes to mind …

We chuckle at the of irony in this 16-minute dance film being divided into three acts – that iconic structure that we tend to associate with the grandeur and scale of the late 19th century classics and the “full-length” dramas of Kenneth MacMillan.   Each act is announced by the flickering sound of a film projector … 

Quizzical looks and quirky walks on the black-and-white screen remind us of Charlie Chaplin.  We’re not well versed in Chaplin’s films, but the dim street lighting of Act I makes us think of the waterfront in his 1931 City Lights, while the boxing ring shenanigans are an unmistakable reference to the prize fight from the same film.  Dinner jackets, white tie and tails worn by the dancers are all part of the “Gentleman Tramp’s” wardrobe.  

From gentle-smile to laugh-out-loud, the humour is enhanced by Arielle Smith’s use of the score – the Klazz Brothers’ Classic Meets Cuba.  Joseph Caley and Ken Saruhashi sashay and pirouette to “Cuba Danube”. All nonchalance, they press up and sway from side to side in a backbend bridge, then leap and cartwheel over one another to the reworking of Johann Strauss II’s “The Blue Danube”.  

Act II brings us an exquisite fulfilment of our Boxing Day thinking, as the chimes of the Sugar Plum Fairy morph into a paradoxically unsettling accompaniment to a world of grey clouds and craggy rocks, where the dancers strut across the space, hands in pockets, in a slightly menacing way, almost as if we’ve strayed into film noir territory. 

But with ever-changing vistas, coat-tails flying in elegant chaînés and suspended arabesques, Act III takes us back to the safe shores of Busby Berkeley and Fred Astaire.  Dancers skitter lightly across the space to the whimsical rendition of Mozart’s speedy “Rondo à la Turque”.  Jolly Folly ends in a gleeful final pose.

Epilogue

We were sorely disappointed.  Having booked our tickets to see these new choreographies onstage, we were “only” able to watch them on our screens.  But we were wrong … or at least half wrong …

In the end we discover that it’s not “only” on our screens.  These films are something to be treasured as a development in ballet making and ballet performance – they are not simply something to fill the gap left by the lack of live performances.  

Nonetheless, we can’t wait to see them live on the theatre stage. That moment can’t come too soon.