United Kingdom Bach and Herman Severin Løvenskiold, English National Ballet’s Le Jeune Homme et la Mort / La Sylphide: Dancers of English National Ballet, English National Ballet Philharmonic / Gavin Sutherland (conductor), London Coliseum, London, 16.1.2018. (JPr)
Le Jeune Homme et la Mort
Choreography – Roland Petit
Libretto – Jean Cocteau
Design – Georges Wakhévitch
Costumes – Karinska
Lighting and Set Supervision – Jean-Michel Desiré
Dancers: Ivan Vasiliev (Young Man) & Tamara Rojo (Girl/Death)
Original Choreography – August Bournonville
Producers and Stagers – Eva Kloborg, Anne Marie Vessel Schlüter & Frank Andersen
Designs – Mikael Melbye
Lighting – Jørn Melin
Alison McWhinney – The Sylph
Aitor Arrieta – James
Francesca Velicu – Effy
Henry Dowden – Gurn
Stina Quagebeur – Madge
It is a great pleasure to watch English National Ballet, especially because in recent years under Tamara Rojo they have been mounting a serious challenge to The Royal Ballet’s previously unassailable position as the UK’s premier company. Rarely have I had to question anything, but there has been some strange programming for this post-Nutcracker London Coliseum season. The dancing has been as superb as ever; though the pairings of La Sylphide with either Song of the Earth or Le Jeune Homme et la Mort has been rather quixotic to say the least. It is not just the subject matter but the timings. After the hour with Song of the Earth starting a very long evening, there was now just an red-hot 17 minutes of Le Jeune Homme followed by a 35-minute interval, and still the evening finished before 10pm.
Although Le Jeune Homme et la Mort has often been a ‘calling card’ for virtuoso male dancers, my first encounter with it was when it was part of English National Ballet’s evening of works by Roland Petit in 2011. That turned into a celebration of the life of that great French choreographer who had died shortly before those performances. I wrote about him and the ballet in my review at the time (click here) and will avoid repeating myself too much. This 1946 existentialist work was created by Petit with a libretto by Jean Cocteau and utilises Bach’s Passacaglia whose baroque romanticism is suitably at odds with the ‘adult themes’ we witness (and the London Coliseum audiences has been warned about with notices at the entrance doors to the auditorium). I will not dwell too much on the significance in 2018 of a story where a hapless young man is driven to suicide because of a predatory woman. The Bolshoi’s Ivan Vasiliev makes an all-to-rare return to London and gives an engrossing performance as the Young Man; virile, volatile, yet so very vulnerable. Vasiliev clearly displays how his character is totally in thrall to his desires, and so inflamed is he by them, that he looks at times as if he might spontaneously combust. His movement is often frenetic and Petit frequently has him in gymnastic poses or tumbling over a table and chair that are characters in the piece in their own right: his despair at rejection is palpable. We have all been there and suffer with him, though thankfully we are not all driven to commit suicide.
Le Jeune sees another great performance from Tamara Rojo as the femme fatale in yellow with black gloves. Perhaps others have been more like a Praying Mantis devouring her mate but since there is a height disparity with the muscular Vasiliev, Rojo reminded me more of a golden poison dart frog who is just as dangerous to anything that encounters it. The Young Man is just a puppet to her; a plaything to do with what she wishes, and to be disposed of when she is bored and wants to move on. There is great chemistry between these two magnificent actor-dancers as Rojo – with her eyes wilfully blazing – wraps around him from behind and rubs his groin with her foot; he responds, by putting his hands over her breasts in his crazed desperation. Three times, Rojo kicks Vasiliev to the floor, and as he cowers she pirouettes after him exhibiting – with absolute perfection – her callous sadistic glee. For the short time they were on stage, Vasiliev and Rojo were as an incandescent a partnership as I have seen for a very long time. As the Young Man hangs himself, Georges Wakhévitch’s 1940s’ garret set flies out – almost sardonically – to reveal a Paris skyline: the Eiffel Tower is there of course, and we see is a winking neon Citroen sign, it is a coup de théâtre typical of Petit. The Girl returns as Death to lead her victim away in the haunting denouement to several intensely felt minutes.
If I had nothing new to write to explain Le Jeune Homme et la Mort having seen it twice in recent years, there is nothing much to say either about La Sylphide which I had seen only one week earlier at the London Coliseum (click here). I considered the Bournonville style and how it ‘is distinctive because of its precision, neatness, lightness, easy elegance and joie de vivre. Repeatedly, we see bouncy jumps, many small quick steps and speedy footwork with beats done while the upper body is held still with arms often in bras bas (or preparatory) position’ and the ballet itself as ‘amusing, captivating hokum with its ending that packs an emotional punch’. This performance showed it probably has more depth than we got to see at that earlier one. This is to the credit of the dancers who are Soloists and Artists of English National Ballet and whose exemplary performance is a tremendous compliment to the current strength in depth of the company and the opportunities Tamara Rojo gives to as many of the dancers in her roster as possible.
However good it was a week ago it was even better on this occasion, and there was a dark undercurrent to this ballet that I missed before. Alison McWhinney was an impeccable Sylph, this time she really did seem to be a winged temptress and someone with clear doubts about whether James, her smitten Scotsman, could be faithful to her. McWhinney’s dancing was soft and speedy, and her jumps had an ethereal quality. There was dainty fluttering of her hands, liquid arms and mesmerising bourrées and this made McWhinney a most convincing otherworldly presence. Aitor Arrieta was another soaring James, but he had that lighter-than-air quality to his dancing that is all-important in a Bournonville ballet. Like all on stage with him he did an admirable job with the mime, but more than that brought James to life. We became invested in his story and it was very affecting to see his obvious distress when he brought about the demise of the Sylph, as well as his own, during La Sylphide’s bittersweet ending.
Kudos too for up-and-coming Henry Dowden’s Gurn, the love rival for Francesca Velicu’s pert Effy; the comic duo of James Streeter (Bimse) and Fabian Reimair (Bumse), Jia Zhang’s delicate First Sylph and the phenomenal precision of all the other Sylphs. Yet perhaps the true star of this La Sylphide was Stina Quagebeur who transformed her youthful self into the old witch, Madge, who lets Effy know about James’s wandering eye and eventually uses an enchanted veil to trick him into causing the Sylph’s death. Anyone would have thought that an older character dancer was portraying Madge. It was an exceptional performance and one with surprising nuance and subtlety.
Despite the little and large nature of the two ballets performed this was another wonderful company achievement. The English National Philharmonic under the ever-alert baton of Gavin Sutherland provided – through the musical diversity of Bach and Løvenskiold – their usual reliable accompaniment.
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