Review: English National Ballet - Ecstasy and Death - London Coliseum

Performance: 18 - 21 April 2013
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Saturday 20 April 2013

English National Ballet -  Bridgett Zehr and Nathan Young in 'Petite Mort' Photo: John Ross

Performance reviewed: 18 April

The commercial gods have not smiled kindly on Tamara Rojo, pitching her first programme choice as Artistic Director of English National Ballet against competition from both the National Ballet of Canada (Romeo & Juliet at Sadler’s Wells) and the Royal Ballet (La Bayadère and Mayerling at the Royal Opera House). Ballet is on a high in the capital but three major companies performing simultaneously means more than 5,000 seats a night to fill and the recognisable narrative-driven, full-length productions of the Royal and the Canadians may have had the edge in the popularity stakes.

But if commerce is a problem, the great white chargers of coincidence and creativity have come galloping to Tamara’s rescue. Coincidence in the delicious timing of the announcement, earlier in the day, that no less than three of the ENB retinue are nominated for the Prix Benois de la Danse, the annual international ballet prizes awarded since 1992. The prodigious talents of Vadim Muntagirov, Ksenia Ovsyanick and George Williamson (as choreographer) are all up for awards. It may be worth reflecting that former winners (known as Laureates) dancing with UK companies are Carlos Acosta, Alina Cojocaru, Sylvie Guillem and Rojo herself. It’s big, bold company to be in; and a three-card-trick that shows English National Balllet is already in the major league.

As for creativity, well Rojo has nailed her colours to the mast of sexy, exciting, challenging ballet, pledging to programme work from world-renowned choreographers who have been overlooked in this country until now. The late Roland Petit and Jirí Kylián would certainly figure in any list of the twentieth century’s great choreographers but so little of their work has penetrated our shores. ENB has had one previous offering of just five performances for Petit’s Le Jeune Homme et la Mort (and Rojo’s predecessor Wayne Eagling must take the credit for procuring the rights to perform it) but this triple bill marked the inauguration of ENB’s stewardship of Kylián’s humorous vignette, Petite Mort, the literal meaning of which (“Little Death”) is a colloquialism for orgasm in both French and Arabic. By contrast, the final work on the programme, Harald Lander’s marathon of sprints in the class exercises of Etudes has been a signature piece for the company for almost all its life, debuting in 1955 with the 750th performance being clocked up in this run.

First created in 1991 for the Nederlands Dans Theater to perform at the Saltzburg Festival – as a tribute to Mozart in the bi-centenary of his death – Petite Mort has been amongst Kylián’s most exportable pieces, now sitting in the repertory of several companies including the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, which acquired it for their Christmas season in 2012. It is an orgy of threesomes, with the monogamy of six heterosexual couples threatened by the man’s infidelity with a fencing foil! A temptation I can personally relate to*, having been seduced by this thin 90cm length of tempered maraging steel with a tensile pliability that enables it to bend almost double (just like a dancer, in fact).

Kylián has the swords balanced on a finger, sensually rolled under the feet and tucked under the knee and neck, encouraging a palpable eroticism in teasing the blade’s foible (its final third before the tip) around a body’s neck and shoulders, giving steel the rubbery plasticity of a serpent’s tongue. A billowing satin sheet brings the girls to the party and they are quickly (all too quickly to be worrying) on the floor in a servile missionary position at the men’s feet. Each character is individually named in the programme (I’m guessing after the NDT dancers who constituted the original dozen), and the dancers throw inhibition to the wind; the girls, bare-legged and wearing pale pink corsets and knickers, are thrown high into crotch-splaying lifts by bare-chested men wearing tight girdle-style shorts. Humour arrives when the six women roll on behind the movable façade of black baroque dresses; their quick exit from which is like the fast forwarding of a burlesque strip show.

Rojo promised to put the sex back into ballet and she has started as fast as a dancer sliding down a pole; I wouldn’t bet against next year’s guest stars being Dita Von Teese, Lola the Vamp and Immodesty Blaize (perhaps it wasn’t just a coincidence that brought the latter to last year’s ENB Summer Party?).

This year’s principal guest was well worth the return ticket on Eurostar. At 41, Nicolas Le Riche may stretch the definition of “jeune” but he remains a phenomenal dancer and brings substance and maturity to the role of Le Jeune Homme that makes the suicidal boy seem like a poet (the death of Thomas Chatterton came to mind). As the femme fatale who bullies the man into taking his own life by the noose, Rojo was both sizzling hot and icily cold-hearted at the same time, a sexual predator closely related to the grim reaper. But, however well these two Benois Laureates performed, the primary reason for greatness in this work lies in the magnificent style in the designs of Jean Cocteau, Karinska and Georges Wakévitch: the final tableau over the rooftops of late-1940s Paris lasts but a minute but is worth every penny.

Etudes is an unforgiving thermometer for any company’s health engaging over 50 minutes of every conceivable combination of barre and centre work. It starts fast and gathers pace throughout to conclude in a whirlwind of intensity. The company looks strong and the sequence of several ballerinas twirling fouettés in unison was so tightly coordinated that it brought audible gasps from the audience around me. It was good to see the delicate precision of Erina Takahashi take centre stage and Muntagirov delivered his debut in the main virtuoso male role (supported by a notably improving James Forbat) despite an injury to one foot and blood seeping through his tights from a wound to the knee on the other leg. Having enjoyed the imagery and odour of the Gauloises in Le Jeune Homme (smoking was cool in Petit’s France), here was evidence of a real jeune homme’s dedication that deserves a Benois!

English National Ballet’s Ecstacy and Death at the London Coliseum until Sunday 21 April

Graham Watts writes for, Dance Tabs, Dancing Times 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.
*Graham fenced in GB teams at foil and sabre between 1975 and 1992, winning a Commonwealth medal in 1990. He was the captain of the sabre team at the Barcelona Olympic Games and subsequently the manager of the British team at the Athens and Beijing Olympics.

Photos: John Ross

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