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 Blues, Senseless Kindness, Laid in Earth, Echoes, 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.
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.
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.
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 …
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.
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)
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.
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”).
Like The Sleeping Beauty, Le 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 Beauty, Le 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.
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 )
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).
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.
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”).
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.
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).
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.
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.
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).
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 Beauty, Giselle 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.
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.
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.
MacMillan offerings from English National Ballet and Scottish Ballet, June 2020
Julia and Rosie have been watching some of the ballets being streamed by British ballet companies and have some thoughts on three works by Kenneth MacMillan shown in June: Scottish Ballet’s The Fairy’s Kiss, and English National Ballet’s Song of the Earth and Manon.
There is so much to watch online in lockdown – an overwhelming choice of offerings from companies all over the world. But for our blog we need to focus on British ballet. We notice that there is a cluster of MacMillan ballets available to watch that we are really interested in: we’re not familiar with The Fairy’s Kiss; we love Song of the Earth; and the performance of Manon being streamed is a cast we didn’t get to see live and features Jeffrey Cirio, one of our favourite dancers.
Before watching The Fairy’s Kiss from our respective homes, we discover that it’s quite an early work, from 1960 (MacMillan started choreographing seven years previously, for the Sadler’s Wells Choreographic Group). We wonder whether we will be able to notice any particular MacMillan characteristic features; it seems likely, as he had already made his renowned The Burrow in 1958, and he created his seminal The Invitation later in 1960, so only months after the premiere of The Fairy’s Kiss (originally known by its French title, Le Baiser de la fée). There’s a connection between the three ballets too, in that they all had major roles for MacMillan’s most important muse, the incomparable Lynn Seymour, originator of Juliet, Anastasia and Mary Vetsera, some of his most significant ballerina creations.
So we watch The Fairy’s Kiss and notice how important the establishment of character is through the use of movement style. The three female protagonists are all quite different in their styles, which is crucial to the narrative: the Fairy is a combination of glittering spikiness and sparkling sensuality; the Fiancée is more free flow and buoyant, gentle in her port de bras, while the Gypsy is all voluptuousness with her ample use of the arms and back, and flirtatious in the detail of her footwork. Rosie tells Julia about the webinar she attended when Bethany Kingsley-Garner (who dances the Fiancée) talked about building character through the rehearsal process. She focussed specifically on the role of the Mother, a significant but small role whose past is not explained. Consequently the dancers were encouraged to ask questions about her backstory to give the movements more meaning. This is a clear indication to us that MacMillan thought it vital for his choreography to express situation, narrative, feeling, even for more minor characters.
But we’re a bit perplexed. Wasn’t MacMillan famous for saying that he was sick of fairy tales? The basis of the narrative is The Ice-Maiden written by Hans Christian Andersen in 1861; so perhaps we can think of it more as a work of Romantic literature, with its melancholy tale of forbidden love, shattered dreams, loss and grief. We discover that Andersen claimed “Most of what I have written is a reflection of myself. Every character is from life. I know and have known them all” (qtd. in Silvey, 25). So these concerns in fact seem to be entirely compatible with MacMillan’s choreographic voice. A bit of research uncovers the fact that between 1955 and 1962 MacMillan created a total of four works to the music of Stravinsky: in addition to The Fairy’s Kiss, there was Danses Concertantes (1955), Agon (1958), and most famously The Rite of Spring (1962). We conclude that some important factors drove MacMillan to tackling The Fairy’s Kiss, uncharacteristic though it may seem.
Then we watch Song of the Earth. This is a ballet that we know. We decide we think of it as a “plotless” work, for want of a better term: it doesn’t trace a linear narrative, but neither is it completely abstract. The characters are fascinating; in fact, despite their overtly archetypal nature, the Man, Woman and Messenger seem more real to us than the protagonists from The Fairy’s Kiss. We always enjoy discussing dancers’ individual interpretations of their roles. How does this work with this plotless ballet? For sure, The Messenger of Death requires a dancer with charisma. Julia finds Jeffrey Cirio to be quite menacing in the role: the harbinger of death – the abiding inevitable of life, who can arrive unexpectedly at any moment. Rosie also compares him with Carlos Acosta in the same role. Carlos’ interpretation seemed to be more of a reflection of the original title for the character – Der Ewige, meaning The Eternal One. His presence was portentous, but it felt like a constant companion who would continue to accompany The Man and Woman into the next world. We agree that a role of this complexity and depth is a treasure trove for both the performer and the audience.
As we watch Song of the Earth, we realise that we notice things on a recording that we don’t necessarily take in during a performance. Do we perhaps tend to watch recordings in a more analytical way, because we know we can re-watch the same recording to pick up other aspects we’re interested in? Or maybe because of the choices made in the process of filming and editing? Rosie’s attention is drawn to the partner work for the male dancers in the opening section “The Drinking Song of Earth’s Sorrow”. Julia notices another point about partnering. In the third song (“Of Youth”) the main female dancer of the section is supported in a series of playful cartwheels by four male dancers. Julia makes a connection with a supported cartwheel that is repeated from arabesque to arabesque in an adagio manner in one of the duets for the Fairy and the Young Man in The Fairy’s Kiss. The “Of Youth” cartwheels are also clearly an expression of the lyrics about the surface of the pond showing the world in mirror image, so that everything is standing on its head. We recognise MacMillan as a master in the creation of pas de deux, but seeing these works within such a short space of time makes us more alert to how innovative some of his movement ideas for partnering were, and how imaginatively he reworked them to fit the context of the ballet he was in the process of creating.
Thinking ahead to Manon, we acknowledge that MacMillan created some extraordinary female roles. As well as Manon, our list includes Juliet, Anastasia, Lady Capulet, The Chosen One in The Rite of Spring, the Sisters in Winter Dreams. This list covers almost three decades. But thinking back to The Fairy’s Kiss and Song of the Earth, we remember that the Young Man from The Fairy’s Kiss is involved in multiple pas de deux, and both the Man and The Messenger of Death are protagonists. And on consideration, this development of male choreography is also characteristic of MacMillan’s oeuvre. We think of the male protagonists in Romeo and Juliet and Gloria, and his most developed male role, Crown Prince Rudolf in Mayerling, who has duets with his Wife, and his Mother, as well as with various Mistresses.
As the curtains open on Manon, named after its female protagonist, it is of course her brother Lescaut who sits alone on the stage in a pool of light surrounded by his cloak. Perhaps because it’s his shenanigans that drive the narrative to disaster? He is the first to dance a solo, and his conniving character is conveyed through the steps themselves as well as through mime, meaning that the dancer has to be very skilful technically as well as being a great actor – like David Wall, the originator of the role. This first solo establishes his personality with those tricky entrechats. Of course Jeffrey Cirio is an exceptional actor-dancer and makes for a real wheeler-dealer Lescaut right from the start, articulating the choreography with fantastic finesse. The entrechats are performed with bent legs. We’re unsure about the correct terminology for the movement. We think maybe Italian entrechats, like Italian assemblés. In trying to find an answer we discover Edmund Fairfax’s Eighteenth-Century Ballet. According to this research, the execution of movements with bent legs was quite prevalent in 18th century ballet in comic and what they called “grotesque” styles, by which we believe they meant dancing with lots of acrobatic elements performed by Commedia dell’arte figures, such as Harlequin and Scaramouche. We don’t know whether these particular entrechats were MacMiIlan’s idea, or if he knew the history of the step and connected it to Manon’s 18th century Paris. We consider whether MacMillan saw Lescaut as a kind of Harlequin with his agility, wiliness and high spirits. It may seem fanciful, but it doesn’t seem beyond the realm of the possible.
Looking back, this particular selection of MacMillan ballets highlights the choreographer’s deep concern with creating complex characters, his innovative approaches to partnering, and his gift of superb roles for male as well as female dancers.