It was a particularly good year for non-narrative ballet and ENB’s triple bill had to be my favourite dance programme of the year. I watched the matinee on 12 March and did rather expect the B team, so I was particularly thrilled to see dancers such as Tamara Rojo and Erina Takahashi in three superb examples of modern ballet. The Royal Ballet also thrilled with Connectome and Monotones, although both were repeats of recent productions.
Of the narrative ballets, Vienna Festival Ballet was as enjoyable as ever with Coppelia and Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Carmina Burana was wonderfully spectacular. Apart from Onegin at the start of the year, it was not so good for the Royal Ballet, culminating with a Carmen that had me laughing for the wrong reasons.
This was a hugely ambitious project – to commission three new dance works to commemorate the start of the First World War. It worked and all three of them knocked spots off the Royal Ballet’s effort with their revival of MacMillan’s Gloria earlier this year. Liam Scarlett’s No Man’s Land played with the title, referring to both the area between the front lines and to the women working in the munitions factory. All the leads were excellent, especially Alina Cojocaru, but I have to also praise Max Westwell as I ended up sitting next to his parents. This was followed by a revival of the Firebirdthe company premiered last year. The music is still wonderful and was brilliantly played by the ENB’s orchestra under Gavin Sutherland and the reduced choreography was an improvement on last year’s. Russell Maliphant’s Second Breath featured figures rising up only to fall to the ground again and again. It seemed a bit repetitive but that was the point, as the music featured recordings from the Imperial War Museum of soldiers from country after country listing the numbers of the fellow soldiers killed in the war. The most remarkable new work was Dust from Akram Khan, apparently his first work for a ballet company. His own astonishing dancing dominated, leaving me to wonder whether the choreography could stand up without him to dance. Luckily it was a question I didn’t need to ask as he both he and Tamara Rojo danced at the matinee as they had for the premiere the night before. I doubt I’ll see any better dance or ballet this year. As I was leaving the Barbican, a group of young people was just in front of me. One guy said to the others that it was the first time he’d cried in a theatre. He wasn’t the only one.
The ENB advertises this as, “Probably the best ballet you’ve never seen.” Most full-length ballets are either very familiar, such as Swan Lake and TheNutcracker, or are based on well-known stories, such as the Royal Ballet’s recent Alice in Wonderland. Unless you have read Byron’s poem The Corsair, buying the excellent programme is therefore essential. This will give you the full story which starts with the pirate captain, Conrad, and his faithful slave, Ali, going to rescue Menora, the woman he loves, from a slave trader. Having rescued her amid much joyful dancing, the most famous part of the ballet is the dance between Ali and Menora. This is not technically a pas de deux, as Conrad dances part of it with him but the most exciting choreography is given to the relatively junior soloist Joan Sebastian Zamora who drew the loudest cheers of the night with his astonishingly athletic leaps and twists, while Erina Takahashi was superb as Menora. I felt a little sorry for Yonah Acosta’s Conrad as his part, originally a non-dancing one, is very much in the background but he came into his own later in the ballet.
After the slave dealer has recaptured Menora, Act III features the Pasha’s opium-induced dream, Le Jardin Animé, in which the flowers of his garden come to life, dancing beautifully with students from the English National Ballet as the buzzing insects around them. After this pastoral interlude, it is back to the action as Conrad recaptures Menora and they sail off into the sunset – only to end up shipwrecked. The production and costume design by Bob Ringwood is very different from his productions for films such as Batman and Alien III but equally stunning, permitting a smooth transition from scene to scene without interruption, particularly in the third act which moves rapidly through five separate scenes. In summary, a hugely enjoyable family show, even if it is a story of murder and kidnap by pirates, sexual slavery and a drug-induced hallucination!
This category covers any event that happened during the year and doesn’t fit into the other categories. I did consider the strangely beautiful performance work Above Me the Wide Blue Sky at the Young Vic. There were also some enjoyable days out, such as the London Film and Comic Con in July and the ENB open day. However, there is no doubt that Brasserie Zédel’s celebration of Bastille Day wins out. The brasserie is one of my favourite restaurants in London, an art deco shrine which serves classic French food at decent prices, and the prix fixeis a decent pre-theatre meal for under £10. On Bastille day they offered a free menu formule to regulars (or anyone on their mailing list) wearing a beret and a Breton sailor’s top. The atmosphere was fantastic and fun-filled. It was also lovely to wander up Regent Street afterwards, shut to traffic for the day, even if it did mean spending what I saved on food on silk ties instead.
Thank goodness it was nothing like those gloomy posters. After a short film about Nureyev, the opening ballet was Petrushka, with Fokine’s original choreography and Benois’s designs for the Ballets Russes. The score by Stravinsky is one of his most enjoyable, based on Russian folk tunes like Rite of Spring and the Firebird. The ballet is full of colour and was well danced at the matinee, although Anton Lukovkin did have the unenviable job of following film of Nureyev himself but acquitted himself well. The second ballet, Song of a Wayfarer, is a duet between the wayfarer and his destiny, a calm reflection between the two more exuberant pieces. The Mahler songs were excellently sung in German by Nicholas Lester but there were no surtitles and no libretto in the programme, just a simple description of the ballet.
The triumphant climax of the triple bill was Raymonda Act III, a glorious wedding celebration in gold and white. Going to the matinee, I did not expect the top casting but I cannot believe anyone could have surpassed the performances of Elena Glurdjidze and Dimitri Gruzdyev as the couple getting married. James Streeter and Stina Quagebeur led the company in swirling, exuberant style for the Hungarian dance. This was followed by a series of set pieces, culminating in an astonishing solo by Elena Glurdjidze which drew every ounce of sensuality from Glazunov’s music and well deserved the huge applause it received.
I’m not sure it makes sense to have a tribute to someone who is dead – a Celebration of Rudolf Nureyev might have made more sense and would certainly have fitted the ballets better. A more celebratory, less gloomy poster campaign might also have helped ensure a full house, thought it was not bad for a matinee. If I did not have other commitments, I’d certainly go again.
Thank you, Tamara Rojo, for revitalising the English National Ballet. The ENB’s range was beautifully highlighted by the three works gathered as Ecstasy & Death. The first, Petite Mort, a modern ballet choreographed by Jiří Kylián was possibly the most advanced, challenging work I have seen the ENB tackle and they performed it perfectly. The title is a French term for orgasm, literally “little death,” encapsulating both sides of the triple bill’s title, as did the next ballet, Roland Petit’s Le Jeune Homme et la Mort. With a story by Jean Cocteau, set in an artist’s garrett and on Paris rooftops, this was a glorious melodrama, beautifully danced by Fabian Reimair as the tortured young artist and Jia Zhang as both the girl who he makes love to and the figure of Death who carries him away at the end.
There was nothing profound about Harald Lander’s Etudes which closed the programme. Its setting is a dance studio with ballet dancers practising their moves, giving the whole company a chance to show off which they did to glorious effect. Tamara Rojo herself took the starring role, as a twirling, swirling tour-de-force, as if to ram home what her leadership has brought to the company. There was a special cheer at the end for Alban Lendorf who came in to partner her at very short notice (he was not even on the day’s cast list) to replace the injured Vadim Muntagirov.
I feel sorry for Tamara Rojo’s predecessor, Wayne Eagling, – his Nutcracker is the best I have ever seen – but I think it was time for a change. Coming from the Royal Ballet, she appears to have brought two things with her. The first is a much better pricing policy: I had a good seat in the Upper Circle for £10. Unfortunately the second is overlong intervals: two intervals of 30 minutes each. If an audience can manage 100 minutes of Sunken Garden with no interval, then I’m sure we can manage 90 minutes of dance with just one. Even the ENB previous practice of one 25 and one 20 minute interval was preferable.
I have been a Friend of the ENB for a couple of years (really good value if you are over 60) but only just got round to attending one of their open days. I should have done so earlier: it is an astonishing experience to be part of a small group (limited to ten) sitting in the rehearsal studio at Markova House while they practise. I was lucky enough to see a number of principals in duets from Sleeping Beauty, followed by Shiori Kase rehearsing for her performance in Diana and Acteon at the Emerging Dancer awards. To have dancers so close that you find yourself moving your feet out of the way (probably unnecessarily) is a very different experience to seeing them on stage (especially if you sit as far away as I usually do). Despite my comments on the importance of the music in ballet, it hardly matters in these circumstances that there is just a piano to accompany them. I also thoroughly recommend going to small theatres to see opera and plays. OperaUpClose, usually at the King’s Head but also touring gave an excellent, very involving performance of Britten’s Turn of the Screw a year or two back, whilst I’ve already said how much I enjoy plays at the Orange Tree and Pentameters.
There was plenty of booing at the end, not because it wasn’t good but because James Streeter was so excellently evil as the bad fairy Carabosse! There was a lot of fuss about Tamara Rojo dancing Princess Aurora (the beauty of the title) in the first performance of the season but I saw Ksenia Ovsyanick in the matinee on January 15th and felt she could not have been bettered. I hadn’t realised it was a special family-friendly performance so there were lots of children in the audience. Luckily, they only added to my delight, creating a real pantomime atmosphere. “Here come the fairies” said a child’s voice followed by an excited “More fairies!”
I probably won’t bother with the Nutcracker this year but if I do it will definitely be the English National Ballet’s version. The Royal Ballet’s Nutcracker is very traditional but ultimately rather fussy and cluttered. Matthew Bourne’s Nutcracker! is silly and fun but only if you already know the story (and it is not on this year).
I first saw the ENB (then the London Festival Ballet) perform the Nutcracker back in the 60s and loved it. I’ve seen their current production, choreographed by Wayne Eagling, for the last two Christmases and it gets it perfectly. It gently breaks with tradition to add to the tale with fun touches, such as the skaters in the opening scene and the balloon flight, but keeps the magic. If you do want to see one Nutcracker this year, particularly if you are new to the ballet, do try the ENB first.