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.
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.