Review: English National Ballet in Ballet Russes Programme 2 at Sadler's Wells

Performance: 17 - 20 Jun 09
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Thursday 18 June 2009

The ENB celebration of the Ballets Russes centenary moved to its second programme without the fanfare, the red carpets or Stephen Fry. In fact the second programme was “de-celebritied” even to the point of Karl Lagerfeld’s Chanel couture for Elena Glurdjidze’s Dying Swan being partly deconstructed, since the very elaborate feathered ruff (described by the Times critic as a ‘strangulating neckline’) was clearly so constricting as to be dispensed with altogether for this second show.

The two programmes opened and closed with a different set of substantial works: A_pollo_ and Schéhérazade on night one being replaced by *Les Sylphides* and *The Rite of Spring* for the second programme. Les Sylphides is a ‘ballet blanc’ without story; dance floating like a gently mobile painting of the French romantic school; opening and closing with white sylphs surrounding a lone man (sometimes referred to as a poet) in picturesque woodland tableaux. Nothing of any consequence happens, apart from a continual flow of romantic elegance, the ethereal spirits wafting through the palpable breeze of a sultry evening to some of Chopin’s best-known works. The principal dancers – Thomas Edur, Agnes Oaks, the omnipresent Glurdjidze and Crystal Costa – carried exceptional lightness of being and soft footfalls through each successive dance – a polonaise, mazurka and waltz. There was perhaps a little too much stiffness in some of the surrounding sylphs and the stage occasionally seemed dwarfed by the action.

The only differences in the mid-section from the previous evening were the absence of the Lagerfeld neckline and a change of dancer as *Le Spectre de la Rose*. This work always sits better in its full context, with windows for the spirit to enter and leave (so often left out in galas), and it is caringly performed by these guest dancers from The Australian Ballet. I was equally impressed by the effortless spring and noiseless landings of the mercurial Tzu-Chao Chou as I had been with Daniel Gaudiello on the previous evening.

I guess that stage setting requirements precluded the more obvious order of placing The Dying Swan last of these three divertissements. It is such an iconic work (although ironically with little direct association to Diaghilev) that any ballerina attempting it is following many hard acts; Glurdjidze starts beautifully and her interpretation is punctuated by lovely personal touches but I didn’t always get the sense of fading mortality, of life gradually ebbing away in association with Saint-Saëns music. Dawson’s Faun(e)*failed to grow in my estimation over the earlier evening. The idea of creating a new work for *Debussy’s score seems appropriate to honour Diaghilev’s ideals but, although the feminine grace of the two male dancers is remarkable, the choreography fails to impress after an interesting (silent) beginning.

If Les Sylphides seemed to dwarf the Sadler’s Wells stage then the pulsating energies of 45 dancers in Kenneth MacMillan’s The Rite of Spring was overcrowding of an epic proportion and from the front rows of the stalls, there sometimes seemed insufficient room to carry the momentous scale of MacMillan’s tribal ritual. It was, however, performed excellently by the whole ensemble. Sarah McIlroy could barely stand at the end, having given so much effort to the role of the doomed Chosen One. It was not an exhaustion expended in vain.

Without Diaghilev both companies that became the Royal Ballet and ENB would have been shaped very differently. The ENB is to be congratulated, more so than the comparable efforts of the Royal, for successfully fulfilling a very diverse brief to honour the 100th anniversary of a company that did so much to establish ballet in Britain.

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