English National Ballet’s The Forsythe Evening is upbeat and playful

United KingdomUnited Kingdom English National Ballet’s The Forsythe Evening: Dancers of English National Ballet. Sadler’s Wells, London, 31.3.2022. (JO’D)

Emily Suzuki and Isaac Hernández in Blake Works I (c) Laurent Liotardo

Blake Works 1
Choreography and Stage design – William Forsythe
Music – James Blake: Songs from The Colour in Anything

Playlist (EP)
Choreography, Stage and Costume design – William Forsythe
Music – Peven Everett, Abra, Lion Babe, Khalid, Natalie Cole

Dancers of English National Ballet

The curtain rises to reveal the dancers of English National Ballet arranged in a way (and dressed in a colour) that brings the opening of Balanchine’s Serenade to mind. Only there are men as well as women on the stage. And instead of lowering a raised arm to Tchaikovsky’s searing violins, the dancers smile as they begin a saucy shimmy of shoulders and hips, sur place, to the music of James Blake. The tone for ENB’s The Forsythe Evening is immediately set, it is to be upbeat and playful.

No room here for the brooding tension of choreographer William Forsythe’s In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated (1987), which this company performed in 2015. No room for the searching analysis of the pas de deux of his Approximate Sonata 2016, part of ENB’s Voices of America programme in 2018. The ‘Forsythe strut’ itself is softened. To borrow from Jane Austen’s own comment on Pride and Prejudice, the evening will prove to be ‘light, and bright, and sparkling’ from beginning to end.

Blake Works 1, before the interval, was premiered by Paris Opera Ballet in 2016. An illustration of the ‘Petipa-Balanchine-Forsythe continuum’, it includes sweeping, classical port de bras, point work and jetées. The movements of the women’s shoulders and hips make you think of Josephine Baker, ‘the first Balanchine ballerina’. But the speed at which the different pieces of dance overlap, the often crowded-looking stage, the way the dancers produce sound by slapping their bodies or letting out a sigh or watch each other dance: these belong to Forsythe.

Playlist (EP) (2019), the evening’s second work, is an expanded version of the disco-influenced Playlist (Track 1, 2), created on male dancers of English National Ballet in 2018. The men are there at the start, in pink and blue, with surnames printed on their T-shirts like football or baseball players. To music by Peven Everett and Lion Babe, they hunker, they trot, they perform the temps de poisson. As their dance comes to its characteristically sudden end, they give a little bow.

It is the end of the penultimate section, though, that really takes one’s breath away. Having run on from the wings in waves, the dancers walk about the stage to a recording of Barry White’s Sha La La Means I Love You. With arms collectively en couronne, the women on point, the men on the balls of their feet, they look like pairs of compasses set in motion. For its scale and inventiveness, this is choreography that Petipa himself might have understood and admired. And as the dancers continue to walk, the curtain descends.

Precious Adams and James Streeter in Playlist (EP) (c) Laurent Liotardo

Over the course of the evening English National Ballet as a whole excels, but individual dancers do stand out. Emily Suzuki from the moment she appears, on her own and in a tender pas de deux with Isaac Hernández. Jeffrey Cirio in his solos, Angela Wood, Emma Hawes, the sensitive and thoughtful Aitor Arrieta. And Precious Adams, in an ultimately playful pas de deux with James Streeter. Never, in my experience, has this dancer looked so confident, so assured, so happy.

John O’Dwyer

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