English National Ballet kicked off 2017 by restaging Mary Skeaping’s Giselle, an ethereal take on a Romantic favourite. Fast-forward a year and a nineteenth-century classic is again launching the season – La Sylphide – but this time it’s presented alongside a decidedly modern companion: Kenneth Macmillan’s Song of the Earth.
Where Macmillan’s 1965 piece is philosophical and abstract, with streamlined costumes and conceptual figures, La Sylphide shines with sunny stock characters and the bright familiar trappings of classical ballet. But both are momentous works, and odd as their pairing may seem, their shared themes of love and loss emerge cleanly – shrewd programming from artistic director Tamara Rojo, who takes on the lead in the former.
Gustav Mahler’s famed song cycle of ancient Chinese poems propels Song of the Earth, which sees two singers and an ensemble of dancers gesture at natural beauty and human mortality. Macmillan famously summed up the ballet’s premise as follows: “A man and a woman; death takes the man; they both return to her, and at the end of the ballet we find that in death there is the promise of renewal.” Recent Birmingham Royal Ballet transplant (and newly christened lead principal) Joseph Caley is the carefree man to Rojo’s lonely woman, while a last-minute cast change saw Fernando Carratalá Coloma – who joined as an artist of the company in 2017 – step in on opening night as the mysterious Messenger of Death, who dips in and out as a symbol of transience.
Predictably, Rojo comes out some ways ahead of her younger partners – sharp and sculptural, her outthrust arms deftly calibrated to signal power and anxiety at once. Caley demonstrates a promising sense of release, matched with a formidable muscular punch, and Coloma brings a sensual stride, but it’s Rojo alone who realises the complexity of her character. Her deep, steady stare ponders the mystery of existence, while her purposeful steps accentuate the ground we all tread – a moving, accomplished rendering.
Macmillan’s off-beat choreography, with its unusual curves and abrupt tonal shifts, pushes the ensemble and occasionally outstrips them, particularly the men, some of whom look at sea with the flexed feet and pointed elbows. Props to Senri Kou for her jaunty petit allegro in the third movement, and to the cast at large for their groupwork in the fourth – daisy-chained together, they bounce and march in impressive harmony.
The second half of the evening returns the company to the more straightforward territory of La Sylphide, where they readily animate the story of a fluttery sylph and the Highlander she enchants. The buoyant ballet is a confetti shower of tartan and tulle, with sprites and Scots dancing amid a cosy nestle of castles and glens. Mikael Melbye’s set design brims with fanciful touches, including a mechanism to whisk the sylph up a chimney and another to carry her off into the afterlife.
Jurgita Dronina is a smiley and sprightly sylph, surefooted in her bourrées. Her balances occasionally waver, but she commands the soft, gliding Bournonville style with ease. Isaac Hernández looks a smidge less comfortable with this technique, lingering in his leaps, but his performance as the impulsive James is engaging and even endearing – not a quality I normally associated with his character, whose defining act is blowing off his doting fiancée for a forest creature and then accidentally crushing it to death. Other commendable performances include Anjuli Hudson’s expressive Effie – convincing in both her excitement and her distress – and Jane Haworth’s delightfully salty witch.
Even with its two acts, this particular production isn’t quite substantial enough to carry an evening on its own; ENB’s done well to couple it with another work. The pairing cannily indulges our need for vivid material on these bleak mid-winter nights while also steering us down from the high of the Christmas circuit, with its sugary Nutcrackers and other family-friendly fare. And it has the distinct bonus of extending last year’s national celebrations of Macmillan’s legacy on the 25th anniversary of his death – a welcome way to begin 2018.