ENB Dancers Choreograph First World War Themed Works

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Korseniowski, Hewson, Hodel, Hamilton, Gurney, Choreographics:  English National Ballet, The Pit, Barbican, London, 22.5.2014 (J.O’D)


English National Ballet's Choreographics 2014
English National Ballet’s Choreographics 2014  Photo: Ash

Count Down
Dancer: Emmeline Jansen
Choreographer: Emmeline Jansen
Music: Dance for me Wallis – W.E. Music from the Motion Picture
Composer: Abel Korzeniowski

Ripple Effect
Dancers: Juan Rodríguez, Guilherme Menezes, Joshua McSherry-Gray, Ksenia Ovsyanick
Singer: Johnny Muir
Pianist: David Hewson
Choreographer: Makoto Nakamura
Composer: David Hewson

We Are Free
Dancers: Adela Ramírez, Angela Wood, Jeanette Kakareka, Laurent Liotardo, Francisco Bosch
Singer: Simon Loughton
Pianist: Joy Ellis
Choreographer: Fabian Reimair
Composer: Stephan Hodel


In Living Memory
Dancers: Erina Takahashi, James Forbat, Nathan Young
Singer: Shimi Goodman
Pianist: Christopher Hamilton
Choreographer:James Streeter
Composer: Christopher Hamilton
Orchestration: James Simpson


Dancers: Nancy Osbaldeston, Guilherme Menezes
Pianists: Mark Bebbington, Julia Richter
Choreographer: Stina Quagebeur
Composer: Ivor Gurney

For the past five years, English National Ballet’s Choreographics has given dancers in the company the opportunity to choreograph short works for performance by their colleagues. Emmeline Jansen (from the English National Ballet School), Makoto Nakamura, Fabian Reimair and Stina Quagebeur all presented pieces at The Place last year. This year’s event is a chance to see how their work (mentored as before by choreographer, Kerry Nicholls) has developed. It is also a chance to see what The Royal Ballet Artistic Director, Kevin O’Hare (in this month’s Dancing Times), calls the now ‘very blurred’ lines between classical ballet and contemporary dance. The theme given to the four English National Ballet dancer-choreographers (the fourth is James Streeter) was the First World War. Each was asked to choose a poem from the period, and to work with a composer who would first of all set the poem to music. The pieces by Nakamura, Reimair and Streeter were the result of this collaboration.

In the sharp, rapid changes of pose during her opening solo, Count down, Emmeline Jansen showed the same questioning verve she displayed in her 2013 duet, ‘Hooked’. Starting from a position of huddled, symmetrical stillness at the centre of the stage, she moved to all four corners with arms and legs shooting out from her body in a way that seemed almost involuntary. This was intended to represent physical or mental struggle. She ended back at the centre, with shoulders rolled, staring at the hand of one bended arm as if it did not belong to her.

Makoto Nakamura’s Ripple Effect was the first work to be preceded by a short, filmed interview with the choreographer, and by the chosen poem sung to piano accompaniment. In this case the poem was Wilfred Owen’s ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’. There was the same almost spiritual tenderness in the central pas de deux between Juan Rodríguez and Joshua McSherry-Gray (the soldiers who die) as there had been between Rodríguez and Junor Souza in the work Nakamura presented last year (‘A Fruitful Death’). The bodies of the two dancers lying wrapped around each other at the front of the stage is the strongest image of death in any English National Ballet evocation of the First World War so far this year. As the people who survive, Guilherme Menezes and Ksenia Ovsyanick dance a sad, strained duet which ends with her sinking acceptance that his experience of the war, and the memory of it, is something that she can not share.

In the film before next the work, We Are Free (poem: ‘Absolution’ by Siegfried Sassoon), Fabian Reimair says that he was ‘aiming for images rather than steps’. Reimair’s piece last year, ‘[co][hes][ion]’, was the most experimental in its use of the floor and how the dancers were positioned on it. His much more sophisticated and elaborate piece this year opens with its five performers in static silhouette against a dark yellow background. Three of them form a sculptural group at the back. The folds of the dress that one of them wears (and on which the other two stand) extends in a wide circle about her feet. While this group remains in shadow, the other man and woman (their costumes making reference to those of the pre-war Ballets Russes) perform a pas de deux to ‘waltz-like’ music. When the lights come up on the group, it is to show that, through a clever use of hairstyling and makeup, the figure in the dress has no face, or two faces. She is the Motherland and the war machine. Her arms extend beyond the natural into long, red harnesses by which she controls, always from the same position, the other two figures (who are alter egos of the first couple). None of the ‘steps’ that follow can match the shocking power of this central image. None of them seems to want to.

James Streeter’s In Living Memory was inspired by the most narrative of the poems (Wilfred Wilson Gibson’s ‘The Stone’). It is the story of a ménage à trois between a woman and two men (one of whom may only exist in the memory of the woman and the other man). In his interview, Streeter mentions his grandfather and his great aunt, and their memories of the First World War. There is something very ‘human’ about his piece and about the choreography in it. The single prop is a white-painted, straw-bottomed chair. The two men (James Forbat and Nathan Young) are shirtless. The body of James Forbat seems always to be reaching upwards to the air, while Nathan Young’s is more closely connected to the floor. (It is lying, face down, on the floor that he first appears.) Erina Takahashi inhabits the middle ground. Torn between the man who is dead and the man who is living, at the end she is left alone, one arm outlining the contours of a shoulder that is not there.

It is with a woman alone that Stina Quagebeur’s Vera, inspired by Vera Brittain’s ‘Testament of Youth’ and by John McCrae’s poem ‘In Flanders Fields’, starts. In a salmon pink, ‘period’ dress and pointe shoes, Nancy Osbaldeston looks out at the audience before conjuring up through memory her dead lover (Guilherme Menezes). Quagebeur’s work last year (‘Domna’) was the most polished, and also the most neoclassical. Vera shows the influence of choreographers such as John Cranko, and Kenneth MacMillan (their bourrées), and Frederick Ashton. It adds something new when Osbaldeston smells her lover’s body (or remembers the smell of it), and rises on pointe only immediately to twist and buckle. Often cast as a soubrette, Osbaldeston is serious and unsmiling here. With his fluid body, Guilherme Menezes remains always out of her grasp. The bourrée isn’t quite made to express, in the words of Lynn Garafola, the murmur of the soul’s ‘delicate complaint’, but as Osbaldeston stood alone on the stage at the end, one woman in the sold-out auditorium audibly sighed.

John O’Dwyer

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