There are so many interconnections between the four pieces in English National Ballet’s second Ballets Russes programme that I longed for some sort of framing device, some way of setting them in context, especially for those who aren’t already familiar with the history of Diaghilev’s company. No matter how much information is hidden away in the programme notes, at least half the audience won’t read them, or at least not until it’s too late: film has to be the answer – nothing so overtly didactic that it will bore the regulars, but something to explain who everyone is and how they relate to each other. Show some pictures of Jeux so that we understand about the tennis ball, tell what happens in the scene Balanchine cut from Apollo, introduce Nijinsky and Dolin and Lifar and call the evening The Story of Three Loves – anything, to bring the show into focus and make it seem like a unified experience rather than just four ballets, one after the other. No chance, I’m afraid – that sort of thing takes money, and though ENB may be overflowing with talent and enthusiasm and dedication, spare cash they simply don’t have.
So we started straight in with Apollo, very clearly and persuasively staged by Nanette Glushak although – I still think – diminished by the absence of the introduction showing Apollo’s birth and his first childish steps. At the point at which we join the action he’s still supposed to be a boy, with a lot to learn about how a god would think and behave: it’s a difficult impression to put over, and my one criticism of Zdenek Konvalina’s otherwise fine performance is that he’s too grown-up from the start and stands a little apart from the playfulness of Glushak’s staging. I liked Anais Chalendard’s attack and sharpness as Polyhymnia, and Begona Cao’s softer approach as Calliope, declaiming her verses with increasing diffidence as she gradually realises that she’s losing her audience. But Daria Klimentova, as Terpsichore, dances with such obvious and infectious pleasure that there’s never the smallest doubt that she’ll be the one Apollo chooses for the long, wonderful pas de deux. How odd that from all the colour and exoticism, the clamour and the glamour, of the Ballets Russes, it’s this simple, austere little work that held the future in its hand.
The evening’s new work shared some of that austerity of design, but simple it wasn’t. Wayne Eagling’s Jeux is set to Debussy’s score for Nijinsky’s 1913 ballet but the original plot – a man playing tennis with two girls, flirting with both and ending up with neither – is seen only at one remove: Eagling uses an imagined rehearsal of the ballet to tell us Nijinsky’s own tragic story. The action is packed with references to other ballets and to Nijinsky’s decline, and although it’s cleverly done it was hard to pick up every passing hint at the same time as appreciating the actual dancing, and it must surely have been quite bewildering for people who don’t know the background. Dmitri Gruzdyev held it together with a touching portrayal of the tormented choreographer, but my overall impression was of too many ideas, not sufficiently well worked out or put over.
No doubts and reservations about the next piece, though, the one remaining fragment of Bronislava Nijinska’s Le Train Bleu. A short solo, originally designed to show off the looks and acrobatic technique of the then 19-year-old Anton Dolin, it was danced here by the slightly older Vadim Muntagirov, who I’d guess is nothing at all like Dolin – but who could possibly care, given a performance of such charm and accomplishment and wit and affection and charm? Two minutes or so of pure joy, and for me at least the highlight of the evening.
The last ballet linked back to the first via Serge Lifar, perhaps the most famous Apollo and the choreographer of the very French Suite en Blanc. It’s an unashamed display piece, and very much of the mid-20th century: the corps de ballet poses elegantly, a soloist shows off his or her best steps, the corps de ballet takes up a new position and another soloist arrives…. it’s all very pleasant and in the Cigarette solo at least it achieves something more, especially when danced by someone like Elena Glurdjidze, who can evoke the perfume of the age to perfection. It was good too to see so many of the company’s up-and-coming soloists – Yonah Acosta and Lauretta Summerscales for instance – as well as established stars like Erina Takahashi. In format Suite en Blanc reminds me a little of Harald Lander’s Etudes, and it certainly fulfils the same purpose in providing the company with a spectacular programme-closer. ENB may be going through a difficult period but they don’t let it show on stage.