No one could accuse New English Ballet Theatre of lacking ambition. Its speciality is contemporary ballet – specifically, new works it commissions and performs itself – and year after year it premieres a string of ballets from rising and established choreographers alike, all set on casts of fresh ballet school graduates. (NEBT was established as a professional springboard for young dancers in 2011 and refreshes its company regularly). The troupe’s latest bill pairs a 2017 abstract ballet with a brand-new narrative number, a test of its dancers’ versatility and a gesture towards its mission of training up a well-rounded flock. Both pieces are demanding and elicit some impressively stylish moments, though there’s a fair amount of unevenness between them, structurally and in terms of performance.
First up is Jenna Lee’s The Four Seasons, set to Max Richter’s reworking of Vivaldi’s famed violin concerti. Each of the ballet’s four sections corresponds to a season of the year and contains a range of movements, from solos to whole-cast routines. The ten dancers assert their technical strength early on, confidently tackling the twirling choreography designated for spring and moving easily through the respective compositions of summer, autumn and winter. At times, their performance is more mechanical than expressive, as if they’re reciting classroom combinations, though eloquent personal touches can be spotted throughout – luxuriously unfolded extensions from Sophie Allnatt, for example, and commanding, statuesque poses from Kevin Bhoyroo.
The ballet plays around with new costumes, lighting designs and movement vocabularies as it progresses through the seasons, sometimes to tangled effect – there are simply too many changing moods and aesthetics to keep up with in 40 minutes. The result is erratic, pitching beautiful moments alongside forgettable ones.
Luckily the former outweigh the latter. A duet to fraught summer strings serves up sharp spins and sudden, gravity-defying drops, the dancers clutching each other’s necks tango-style. This section is home to some of the ballet’s pluckiest moves, including sissonnes syncopated to the score’s breakneck strings. Fast-forward to fall and it’s all about épaulment, showcased to near perfection in a brisk, energised solo from Camilla Chiesi set against piercing autumnal rays.
The visuals occasionally distract with their cartoonish edge – the men’s lacy goth attire for autumn, coupled with the liberal use of a fog machine, screams discount Halloween shop. Far more alluring are the edgy geometric costumes of summer and the luminous, icy lighting of winter.
Wayne Eagling’s Remembrance also has its irregularities. The 70-minute narrative work, commissioned to mark the centenary of the First World War armistice, imagines the travails of celebrated ballerina Marie Rambert as her husband, the playwright Ashley Dukes, is called away to the battlefield in 1918. In this case, there’s some frontloaded scrappiness, with a handful of early fumbles with members of the corps tripping on props and dropping their lifts. These bumps were smoothed out by the third or fourth scene, but an air of reticence lingered, the cast composed but evidently ruffled.
Alessia Lugoboni and Alexander Nuttall make tender protagonists, deftly navigating a choreography of abrupt start-stops that reflects the jarring uncertainty of Marie and Ashley’s predicament. Lugoboni’s breathy pointework is enticing, flitting elegantly between urgent and poised, while Nuttall’s broad stature also warrants a mention, communicating both assurance and insecurity as needed.
The ballet darts between literal events – the couple’s tearful separation, Ashley’s time in the trenches – and illusory ones, like a dazed dance in which Marie imagines receiving the news of her husband’s death. This latter sequence is lengthy and resonant – a painful churn of cool lines and outstretched fingers performed alongside a chorus of black-clad widows.
Visually, it’s a stunner, April Dalton’s costume design in particular, which invokes bold colours and narrow, genteel lines. Her vision shines brightest in the train station scene, where a throng of wives tearfully see off a regiment of soldiers, their crisp tailoring a sharp contrast to the anxious mood. The music is likewise riveting, a live performance of Handel’s Ode for St Cecilia’s Day, complete with choral singing.
As sweet as the conclusion is – Marie and Ashley reuniting on Armistice Day amid a swirl of red poppies – it’s difficult to get away from the feeling that their story isn’t quite meaty enough to justify a full 70-minute production. A shorter, more focused libretto might give the cast time and space to cultivate their harmony as a group. Many of NEBT’s young dancers soar individually, but their performance here gives the sense they’re still learning to dance together.