Review: English National Ballet - Choreographics 2015 - Lilian Baylis Studio, Sadler's Wells

Performance: 19 & 20 June 2015
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Monday 22 June 2015

Morgann Runacre-Temple's Give My Love to the Sunrise'  - Tiffany Hedman & Daniel Kraus. Photo: ASH

Every company worth its salt now showcases an annual evening of new choreography, largely made by those of its dancers evolving a passion for making work. It is Continuing Professional Development of the most practical kind. Some three years ago, English National Ballet rebranded its own variation on this theme as Choreographics and this programme is now much more like a fully-fledged, complete evening of dance, as opposed to the “work in progress” drafts that have been the norm.

The programme’s versatility was most noticeable in the unusual depth given to lighting and costume design. David Richardson and Louise Whitemore were responsible for these respective inputs and they deserve early, fulsome praise in this review since the enhancing quality of their contributions appeared undiminished by being spread very thinly in simultaneous collaboration with six choreographers. Given that the company was touring China until recently, I expect that the slick professionalism of the whole evening somehow belies the rush to get everything finished in time.

Each choreographer was given the broad theme of “Post-War America” within which to frame their ideas. The outcome of this prompt was to ensure a strong backbone of narrative intent throughout the programme, albeit one that focussed on the dark side of America in that era; with four consecutive works featuring violent deaths.

As a prologue to the evening, the winner of the* ENB School’s Choreographic competition* (held last month and judged by a panel led by Arlene Phillips) was invited to open the evening as a special additional prize. Joshua Legge is a name to remember. This third year student incorporated a surprising number of innovative moves in his compelling male quartet, Babel, fusing the languages of classical ballet with contemporary movement, while introducing transient flavours of hip hop and martial arts. In the ever-cluttered world of new choreography it’s refreshing to see a young choreographer experimenting with his language by exploring unusual movement content.

Both Renato Paroni de Castro’s Memory of What Could Have Been and Fabian Reimar’s traumA examined the impact of a husband not returning from the war. The former was the more sentimental, contrasting Sarah Kundi’s bride and war widow with two brothers (played by the Menezes siblings, Vitor and Guilherme). The sailor she marries is the one who returns from the war only as a memory (the transition simply and cleverly represented by a switch from white to navy uniform).

The first part – a carefree pas de trois for the three dancers – provides an obvious allusion (at least, costume-wise) to Jerome Robbins’ Fancy Free (and perhaps even the contemporaneous musical, On the Town). But, it is the poignancy of the second part that grips and wrenches with its emotional impact. Kundi is an expressive, alert dancer well-suited to this type of chamber ballet (as she proved many times when a lead member of the Ballet Black ensemble) and the Menezes brothers exuded a dashing fraternal naivety while competing for her affection prior to their tragic tour of duty. It was a well cast, seductively performed story, still very relevant to our times.

Reimar took a more visceral look at the same dynamic. His work opened and closed with three guys (Ken Saruhashi, Barry Drummond and Shevelle Dynott) sharply-lit while kneeling in front of the image of a wall; their uniforms (cleverly drawn facsimiles on plain t-shirts) mud-and-blood-splattered, with what appeared to be gaping wounds. This starker imagery of death on the battlefield was then contrasted with one last “dream” from the newly widowed bride (Anjuli Hudson) in an absorbing duet with her husband (Saruhashi). The dead men then turn into photographs of their former selves; expressively intonated by a return to the opening scene but with the doomed trio holding picture frames around their heads. Reimar’s piece was replete with startling and fascinating imagery that requires more than one viewing to fully appreciate.

Like de Castro, Morgan Runacre-Temple was an external choreographer given the opportunity to make a work on ENB dancers. Give My Love to The Sunrise also possessed strong visual appeal, greatly enhanced by Richardson’s effective lighting. Her movement was based around three snapshots from the classic film noir, The Lady From Shanghai, directed by Orson Welles who starred alongside his then wife, Rita Hayworth. The choreographer’s significant experience shone through her clever construction of this brief narrative capsule, incorporating extracts from the film’s dialogue and distilling the essence of a complex plot into three short scenes played out by the Hayworth/ Welles characters: respectively, the femme fatal, Elsa Bannister (Tiffany Hedman) and the hero with “a shady past”, Michael O’Hara (Daniel Kraus). Bookended by the same image of Elsa’s death is a quick-fire tour of their chance meeting, burgeoning romance and a deadly betrayal. Rather than attempt to construct a linear narrative, Runacre-Temple expertly crafts her concept into a flavour of desire wrapped up in a palpable atmosphere of impending doom.

I was also very much taken by the concept of James Streeter’s opening work– with the genius title, A Touch for Eternity – dealing with the final prison room meeting of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, just prior to their joint executions, which occurred on the day of this performance (19 June), 62 years ago. This coincidence added piquancy to the unabashed sentimentalism of a work inspired by the bloody image of Julius jamming his finger through the mesh screen that separated them to “finger-kiss” his wife goodbye. Adela Ramirez and Juan Rodriguez brought emotional clarity to an intense duet that imagines the pain of this meeting in the certain knowledge of their imminent deaths; enlivened by Richardson’s prison-cell-inspired lighting design; and with Streeter’s choreography wringing every virtual ounce of passion from the poignancy of their impending doom through the mangle of his complex lifts and holds.

The closest event to pure dance – and the only work of the evening to feature a largely upbeat sentiment – was Max Westwell’s Fractured Memory, a broadly-based tribute to the American phenomenon of the drive-in cinema. Westwell was the least confident of the choreographers in the recorded interviews that accompanied Laurent Liotardo’s excellent introductory film to each of the six Choreographics. He is the least experienced of the six mainstream choreographers – still, apparently, in that doubting phase as to whether he has anything interesting to say – but his work held up well within the programme and not least because it offered something different and less dependent on narrative.

Westwell covered his bases by engaging a strong sextet of dancers (Madison Keesler, Kateryna Khaniukova, Daniele Silingardi, Junor Souza, Laurretta Summerscales and Jinhao Zhang) and providing them with an engaging suite of dances to the lush music of Olafur Arnalds, Max Richter (also the composer chosen by Streeter) and Nils Frahm. On the evidence of this opening gambit, Westwell should have no further qualms about his ability to put steps together meaningfully.

Going last in a long programme of works that all exceeded expectations could quite easily have been a kiss of death but Stina Quagebeur’s A Room in New York maintained the very high standards of the whole evening and it may even have topped them! Her duet illustrated the tortured, competitive, often violent – yet passionate – marriage of the painters Edward Hopper and Josephine Nivision. It was deftly composed by Quagebeur to represent each of the conflicting elements of the artists’ volatile relationship and strongly performed by Crystal Costa and James Forbat. The choice of Alexander Scriabin’s music for the piano was well suited to the mood.

A well-known critic said to me recently that the problem with such evenings of new choreography is that one has to be encouraging and there is little scope for criticism. On this evidence, none of these choreographers have much need of encouragement. They articulated narrative themes briefly and with clarity; made dance that was absorbing and appropriate to the theme; cast dancers that delivered their work with skill and expressive artistry; chose strong music; and had meaningful collaborations with lighting and costume designers to enhance their concepts. And, through the mix of all these ingredients, they appear to have reached a refined standard of performance with minimal time. I would happily see any of these works again and I sincerely hope that they will have a life beyond the Lilian Baylis Studio, Sadler’s Wells.

Graham Watts is a freelance dance writer and critic. He is a regular contributor to Dancing Times and also writes for, and other magazines and websites in Europe, Japan and the USA. He is chairman of the dance section of the Critics’ Circle in the UK and of the National Dance Awards. Twitter: @gwdancewriter

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