English National Ballet – 70th Anniversary Gala – London

Isaac Hernandez, Shiori Kase, Joseph Caley & ENB artists in Harold Lander's <I>Etudes</I>.<br />© Bill Cooper. (Click image for larger version)
Isaac Hernandez, Shiori Kase, Joseph Caley & ENB artists in Harold Lander’s Etudes.
© Bill Cooper. (Click image for larger version)

English National Ballet
70th Anniversary Gala: Etudes, …Of What’s to Come + excerpts from The Three Cornered Hat, Dust, Swansong, Apollo, Romeo and Juliet, Giselle, Broken Wings, Who Cares?, La Sylphide, Sleeping Beauty, Three Preludes, Carmen, Coppélia, Strictly Gershwin, Playlist (Track 2)


London, Coliseum
17 January 2020

With the almost impossible task of choosing what ballets best represent a company celebrating 70 years of creativity, English National Ballet came up with a slickly presented gala programme that seamlessly flowed from one thing to the next.  Interspersed with film clips of past members, directors, choreographers and conductors, it felt very inclusive, with a potted history, a great range of old and newer works, and some absolutely world class performances from the current company. Most galas are a melange of famous and flashy pas de deux from Don Quixote, Black Swan or Act III Sleeping Beauty, so it was a pleasure to see that for this occasion, the company took a leap of faith and went in a very different direction. It seemed apt for an institution which has built its reputation on its get up and go, hard work and camaraderie, to choose pieces that did not only celebrate its stars but embraced the vast pool of talent as a whole.

Starting with some short film interviews, produced and directed by Dominic Best, it was immediately apparent that everything throughout the evening was going to be expertly edited and curated, with the words relating to the dance excerpts making subtle impact. There were no curtain calls between extracts which allowed for very swift scene changes.

English National Ballet in Khan's <I>Dust</I>.<br />© Bill Cooper. (Click image for larger version)
English National Ballet in Khan’s Dust.
© Bill Cooper. (Click image for larger version)

The first piece was from The Three Cornered Hat, a version not by Leonide Massine as it was for London Festival Ballet, but by Antonio Ruiz Soler. Although the Farruca was danced by a more sophisticated looking character than Massine’s village Miller – once guest artist Sergio Bernal started moving, any initial disappointment was quickly dispelled. I can’t imagine another dancer delivering it with such smouldering, compelling and charismatic allure. It was a perfect opener. Following this was a brief sequence from Akram Khan’s Dust. Anyone who has already seen the ballet will recall that it is one of its highlights. Led by Fabian Reimair and Erina Takahashi, it is visually arresting and while it is fittingly described as the Wave, I cannot help but think that the chain of dancers repeatedly undulating looks strangely like a serpent, the dancers’ forearms representing the vertebrae. As Reimair writhes with inner angst and demons, that idea seems inextricably linked.

James Streeter, Matthew Astley and Jeffrey Cirio in <I>Swansong</I>.<br />© Bill Cooper. (Click image for larger version)
James Streeter, Matthew Astley and Jeffrey Cirio in Swansong.
© Bill Cooper. (Click image for larger version)

Another significant work in the history of the company is Christopher Bruce’s Swansong and whilst the memory of the original cast, Koen Onzia, Matz Skoog and the late Kevin Richmond, will remain deeply etched in our memories, outstanding choreography such as this, can be successfully reinterpreted. James Streeter, Matthew Astley and Jeffrey Cirio, each delivered excellent performances in the First Trio. …Of What’s to Come, a lively effort by ENBYouthCo was followed by the second solo from Apollo, beautifully executed by Francesco Gabriele Frola. Rudolf Nureyev’s long relationship with the company warranted a decent excerpt from his Romeo and Juliet with Dance of the Knights. Alison McWhinney as Juliet and Skylar Martin as Paris were delightful but it was the presence of long-time company members Dominic Hickie (his last performance with the company) and Jane Haworth as Lord and Lady Capulet which will stay with me. However, without the weight and drama of the whole ballet, it seemed a little incidental.

Students from English National Ballet School performed the Migration from Khan’s Giselle, a ballet that has garnered much acclaim (quite rightly so) and whilst well done, got slightly lost in the ether and did not do full justice to the impact that this work gives when done in its entirety.  Tamara Rojo and Reimar followed in La Llorona pas de deux from Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s wonderful Broken Wings, looking suitably accomplished and Precious Adams was utterly charming in the Fascinating Rhythm solo from Balanchine’s Who Cares?, bouncing up from an unfortunate slip as if nothing had happened, to finish with great gusto.

Fabian Reimair and Tamara Rojo in Annabelle Lopez Ochoa's <I>Broken Wings</I>.<br />© Laurent Liotardo. (Click image for larger version)
Fabian Reimair and Tamara Rojo in Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s Broken Wings.
© Laurent Liotardo. (Click image for larger version)

Francesca Velicu, Joseph Caley and Joshua McSherry Gray led the school in The Reel from La Sylphide while the Jewels pas de cinq from The Sleeping Beauty, was danced with assurance, but did not quite manage the sparkle of its title. This was followed by the 1st Prelude from Ben Stevenson’s glorious Three Preludes. Fernanda Oliveira and Junor Souza gave a flawless account of this pas de deux, aside from the technical beauty, precision and lines – the two of them infused the movements with an emotional depth that absolutely struck the right chord. Rojo and Frola gave us a competent pas de deux from Roland Petit’s Carmen, although the chemistry between them was not as heated as one would have hoped.

Ronald Hynd has given so much to the company over the last fifty years that it was lovely to see the Mazurka from his 1985 production of Coppélia. Still in the repertoire, I would happily have watched a greater slice of this hugely successful ballet or an excerpt from one of his equally popular pieces.

Derek Deane’s gorgeous Strictly Gershwin was represented by The Man I Love, beautifully portrayed and lyrically danced by Takahashi and Isaac Hernández, accompanied by Brittany Wallis singing. The marathon of 16 excerpts concluded with William Forsythe’s ‘dance-off’ from Playlist (Track 2), an absolute triumph of athleticism and sheer exhilaration, thrust at the audience by the men in the company.  Astute programming designed to send us into the interval on a high, as with previous showings of the ballet, you leave your seat hungry for more!

Erina Takahashi and Isaac Hernandez in <I>Strictly Gershwin</I>.<br />© Bill Cooper. (Click image for larger version)
Erina Takahashi and Isaac Hernandez in Strictly Gershwin.
© Bill Cooper. (Click image for larger version)

The second half was dedicated to Harald Lander’s enduring Etudes. First performed by the company in 1955, it has clocked up an enormous 734 performances over the years. Based on the structure of a ballet class and set to Knudage Riisager’s arrangement of Czerny’s Etudes, it is one of the most exposing classical ballets in the repertoire, with no hiding behind costumes or narrative and no way of disguising even the tiniest of tremors. After a slightly unfortunate start, the ballet progressed as it should, building on the enchaînements which reach a climax that is both musically and visually sensational. Being acutely aware of just how challenging a piece it is, I thought the company gave an account of it that befitted the importance of the occasion. It was appropriate to spread the principal work over a number of dancers of which there were some truly outstanding performances. Takahashi was exquisitely ethereal in the Sylph section/Pas de deux Romantique, as light as thistledown and almost ready to fly away had it not been for James Forbat’s attentive partnering. Shiori Kase in the ballerina solo almost burnt a hole in the stage with the speed of her turns. She really didn’t put a foot wrong, bringing elegance and dynamics to every step. The men: Hernández, Caley, Cirio and Frola generated enough excitement to raise the temperature somewhat. A fantastic end to some dazzling dancing, silver streamers descended from the flies along with roars from the crowd.

There was an epilogue to this opening night gala. Many of the contributing choreographers, alongside all the dancers, came on stage to listen to Tamara Rojo give a most articulate and heartwarming speech to the audience. Two of the founding members of the company were also invited to the stage, Anita Landa and Pamela Hart. And finally, to the sounds of Ravel’s Boléro played by the English National Ballet Philharmonic and under the always brilliant baton of Gavin Sutherland, we were shown a montage of photographs alongside tributes to those who are no longer with us.  For those of us that have been involved with the company, no matter how small a part, it is clear that the ‘happy family’ that is English National Ballet, reveres and appreciates all who have been part of its 70-year existence.  What has been, will be preserved for posterity and what will come, looks eminently exciting.

About the author

Deborah Weiss

Deborah Weiss is a freelance dance writer and critic, based in London. Royal Ballet School trained and a former senior soloist with London Festival Ballet and Bayerisches Staatsballett, she began writing in 1993 whilst living in Southern Germany. She has written for a number of publications including Dancing Times, The Dancer and Dance Europe.

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