An Almost Perfect Evening of Dance at the English National Ballet


United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Stravinsky, Debussy, Lalo, Apollo, Jeux, Le Train bleu, Suite en blanc: Dancers and Orchestra of the English National Ballet, conducted by Gavin Sutherland, London Coliseum,  28.3.12. (JPr)

As the debate begins to rage about Wayne Eagling and whether he jumped before he was forced from his position as artistic director of the English National Ballet, he can seek his next appointment buoyed by the significant success of this second part of ENB’s spring programme Beyond Ballets Russes. While there was a hint here and there that the programme might have benefited from just a little more rehearsal and – to be truthful – the London Coliseum is a bit too large for such an intimate programme, it was an almost perfect evening of dance. A charming middle act of Wayne Eagling’s own ‘new’ Jeux and a brief Olympian solo from Le train bleu was bookended by the sublime – and more ‘classical’ (i.e. tutus and lots of white) – Apollo and Suite en blanc.

Apollo photo credit: Helen Maybanks /ENB

George Balanchine’s Apollo, to Stravinsky’s score, is a youthful work of his that he later revised and has become one of the twentieth-century greatest ballets. It is totally consistent with the concept of this programme that not only pays homage to the Ballets Russes but explores its legacy. Nanette Glushak stages it with great care and respect for Balanchine’s 1928 timeless neo-classicist concept. Daria Klimentová was a suitably musical and playful Terpsichore who together with Anaïs Chalendard’s stately elegance as Polyhymnia and Begoña Cao’s spirited finger-on-mouth ‘mime’ Calliope made for an almost perfectly matched trio of muses who drag a rather ‘hen-pecked’ god Apollo towards Parnassus at the end. The only previous Apollo I have seen was Nureyev back in the 1970s and for me Zdenek Konvalina with his flowing hair had some of his febrile presence but clearly brought out more of Apollo’s spiritual journey than I remember him doing all those years ago.

Considering his significance as a performer and how much dance Vaslav Nijinsky created for Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes it is an unresolvable ‘tragedy’ that so  little of it survives – apart from a few fleeting choreographic moments and almost endless reminiscences. One of his lost ‘masterpieces’ is the 1912 Jeux (Games) and this is especially disappointing since it uses Claude Debussy’s final complete orchestral score. In the absence of anything original to inspire him Wayne Eagling has turned to some steps choreographed by Kenneth MacMillan for a Nijinsky biopic and expanded it into a ‘drawing room’ play – without dialogue – with hints of Wilde or Coward about it. We have a missing tennis ball that alerts Dmitiri Gruzdyev’s ardent day-dreaming ‘choreographer’, racquets, and six handsome sporty young men and women. If Eagling has done any finer work I look forward to seeing it and he captures the period and spirit of the piece splendidly. I particularly enjoyed the imaginative reference to the angular dance style of Nijinsky (and as we would see in the following solo, his sister Nijinska) with the appearance of the ‘flexing arm muscles’ pose. There was also a witty moment when elbows were used to massage away the back pain from too much tennis! With fine dancing from all concerned and the figure of Diaghilev himself on stage at the end to return the ball, enough said!

Following some tennis – in the year of the London Olympics – there was more athletic prowess shown in a brief solo from the ballet Le train bleu created for the 1924 Paris games. This blue train was the Calais-Méditerranée Express, a luxury French night train which carried wealthy and famous passengers between Calais and the French Riviera from the early 1920s to late 1930s. Vadim Muntagirov was ‘Le beau gosse’ (the handsome boy) in his Chanel swimming costume. Displaying bodybuilder arms, and tirelessly throwing himself into cartwheels and handstands, Muntagirov enjoyed himself immensely in this exuberant solo and so did we.

After all this the best was still to come with the pièce de résistance of Maina Gielgud’s staging of Serge Lifar’s Suite en blanc to Edouard Lalo’s enticing music. The evening now came full-circle for Lifar was Balanchine’s original Apollo and later he produced his own neo-classical work that was recently given this revival by the English National Ballet in 2011. It is quickly becoming one of this company’s twenty-first century signature pieces. There are a number of complex sequences requiring quick and accurate footwork and much of the dancing – as well as the partnering – was outstanding. It is to be expected that Elena Glurdjidze’s Cigarette variation – that Ms Gielgud originally learned from the choreographer himself – would catch the eye through her superbly controlled technique. But generally everyone deserves praise from the three girls of the Sieste, followed by the pas de trois at the beginning, to Yonah Acosta’s pantherine Masurka, the exciting pas de deux of the always reliable Erina Takahashi with Zdenek Konvalina, followed by the whipping fouettés of her solo and everyone’s combined work at the end; it was a glorious feast of fine dancing from a company doing their very classical best despite their continuing travails.

I thought Gavin Sutherland and his English National Ballet Orchestra lingered a little over the Stravinsky, were slow to warm up and then sounded a little tired during the evening, but it never spoilt anything and this can only reflect the impeccably high musical standards they usually set.

Performances of Beyond Ballets Russes Programme 2 continue until April 1. I urge you to go if you can.

Jim Pritchard

For details of all English National Ballet’s forthcoming performances visit