Ecstasy and Death – Ballet Triple Bill

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Ecstasy and Death – Ballet Triple Bill: Dancers of English National Ballet, Orchestra of English National Ballet, conducted by Gavin Sutherland. London Coliseum, London, 18.4.2013. (JPr)

Petite Mort (Jiří Kylián)

Daria Klimentová, Nancy Osbaldeston, Fernanda Oliveira, Ksenia Ovsyanick, Laura Summerscales, Marize Fumero, James Streeter, Francisco Bosch, Fabian Reimair, James Forbat, Esteban Berlanga, Vadim Muntagirov (Chris Swithinbank – pianist)

Le Jeune Homme et la Mort (Roland Petit)

Tamara Rojo – Nicolas Le Riche

Études (Harald Lander)

Erina Takahashi, Vadim Muntagirov, James Forbat, Esteban Berlanga and Company

English National Ballet's Ecstasy & Death at the London Coliseum - London
Tamara Rojo (Girl) and Nicolas Le Riche (Young Man) – photo credit David Jensen.

I don’t know what the marketing strategists involved in the recent rebranding of English National Ballet were thinking when they devised the title Ecstasy and Death for this triple bill of ballets. Despite the company having performed Harald Lander’s 1948 Etudes 746 times before I did not know what to expect, but at least with Jiří Kylián’s Petite Mort and Roland Petit Le Jeune Homme et la Mort, their titles give it away that there might be ‘death’ involved there somewhere. However, having seen the three ballets now a better (if perhaps more risqué) title would have been ‘Comings and Goings’. ‘Ecstasy and Death’ was only really appropriate for Le Jeune Homme et la Mort when the young man achieves some form of sexual ecstasy using a chair and his subsequent death-by-hanging could be seen as erotic asphyxiation going wrong. There is one moment in Petite Mort when the six men lower themselves on their six fencing foils in the same way the faun lowers itself to ‘consummate’ with the nymph’s veil at the end of Nijinsky’s L’après-midi d’un faune and although ‘Little Death’ can refer to orgasm in French and Arabic – there was no death and precious little ecstasy in that piece. And as for Etudes it exudes a joy for dance and the all the repetition behind the grandeur, for me the title for the evening seemed irrelevant.

Kylián’s Petite Mort is basically a dance of duets and I suppose, employing another sexual euphemism, it ‘takes two to tango’, No tangoing here of course but much foreplay. I suspect I know what the foils are meant to represent as they are relished so much by the six men stripped to the waist and dancing in chic underwear. This was a company première of a ballet Kylián created in 1991 and set to two exquisite Mozart piano concertos, and he has it all bathed in a golden light (realised by Joop Caboort). The men pull a billowing stage-wide piece of fabric down the stage and when they pull it back again, it reveals five women standing in a shadowy row at the back of the stage. They glide humorously around the stage in what appears to be elaborate black crinoline dresses (designed by Joke Visser) only to eventually step out in leotards from behind this ‘armour’ and engage with the men and their ‘weapons’. Both dancers and foils get bent into curving lines, there is much intertwining of limbs and splaying of legs: the women on their backs are often shown supporting the men hovering over them on their raised knees. This gives a pervading – and possibly uncomfortable – sense of who is dominant in this partnership and who is submissive, but as a treatise on men, women and sex this is all I got from this. However as evidence of the current rude health of English National Ballet and the depth of talent they have at their disposal then this is a wonderful addition to their repertoire and all the dancers moved with well-drilled ease and almost complete synchronicity throughout the piece. I wondered whether it might have benefitted from a less cool – and therefore more sensuous – approach but having never seen Petite Mort before, perhaps that’s not what Kylián wants..

The highlight of the evening came with a second encounter for me with Petit’s 1946 Le Jeune Homme et la Mort. The ‘young man’ of the title was the great Nicolas le Riche now in his final season with the Paris Opéra Ballet. Of course he is now a mature artist but he still seems at the height of his powers in this short ballet. He moves in frustration around his Parisian garret while waiting for his mistress, throwing chairs about, as well as using them in what I must delicately describe as an erotic manner. (He also pays homage to Nijinsky’s Faun with some very recognisable two-dimensional steps.) This is a Jean Cocteau character in love with the wrong woman and when she finally arrives – ‘smoking hot’ (literally) in a yellow dress with black gloves – she torments him and dares him to hang himself. As she tantalizes him more and more she rubs her pointe shoe in his crotch and blows smoke in his face. It is all too much for the young man and chillingly he is shown hanging from a noose as she returns in white and red with the mask of death.

In an stunning quasi-cinematic coup de théâtre straight from 1940s’ Hollywood we see the skyline of Paris – as conceived by Georges Wakhévitch – across which she walks him away. This is all performed to an intriguingly florid arrangement of Bach’s music. ENB’s artistic director, Tamara Rojo revels in the role of ‘Girl’ and does the smirking cruelty and torment extremely well – I just thought she was perhaps not quite tall enough for a totally plausible domineering femme fatale. Le Riche also possibly has too much magnetism (if that is possible) for the role of ‘young man’ but it was still great to see the still pantherine quality and athleticism of his dancing. Many of ENB’s current crop of talented male dancers should learn much from sharing a stage with such a great ballet star.

Harald Lander’s Études starts in the classroom with barre work and builds and builds to a full-on display of allegro pyrotechnics. The slow, painstaking dancing of a class is often more demanding than actually performing. It seems designed for those whose highlight of any ballet evening are moments like the ‘Rose Adagio’ balances in The Sleeping Beauty or the Black Swan’s bravura 32 fouettés in Swan Lake. The score – Knudåge Riisager’s setting of Czerny’s Études – builds and builds relentlessly like the movement on stage. Girls open the ballet with careful pliés in the five basic positions, barre work follows for legs and feet and then silhouetted dancers move through a series of stretching combinations. This develops into more complex classroom combinations as would be danced in the centre of a studio and then we are eventually shown highlights of the history of choreography in the nineteenth-century from Bournonville onwards towards the grandeur classicism with are familiar with from Petipa’s ballets. At 50 minutes, however, it all goes on a bit too long.

It was heartening to see how the principals, soloists and corps of English National Ballet, under Tamara Rojo’s leadership are now looking more and more like a superb ensemble company with a uniform style of its own, the security of their technique and the unanimity of their movement was often quite astonishing. Erina Takahashi brought her all usual engaging personality, authority and grace to the ballerina role. Vadim Muntagirov and James Forbat leapt and spun with ebullient attack. However am I alone in finding Muntagirov – despite his endearing open face – never as exciting to watch as I think he should be? He, in particular, could learn much from studying Nicolas Le Riche closely.

Once again the consistently good English National Ballet Orchestra under Gavin Sutherland gave spirited renditions of the contrasting styles of music.

Jim Pritchard

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