English National Ballet Goes Beyond Ballets Russes

One of the highlights so far in this year’s ballet calendar was English National Ballet’s Coliseum season with “Beyond Ballets Russes”: two bills, great value for seasoned ballet-goers and new audiences alike. We were delighted when Dave Wilson – who blogs at Dave Tries Ballet – agreed to report back to us on both programs.

To illustrate Dave’s blog we feature some beautiful images of Balanchine’s masterpiece Apollo, courtesy of ENB dancer and photographer Laurent Liotardo. For more photo candy, check out Laurent’s Facebook page.

English National Ballet are currently experiencing a period of change: it was recently announced that their Artistic Director, Wayne Eagling, will be leaving the company in August and a successor is to be appointed imminently. It seemed then appropriate that the company’s Beyond Ballet Russes programs at London’s Coliseum should concentrate on the idea of transformation, with the result of two superb, well-balanced bills.

Program 1

The first program dealt with the theme of transformation presenting new and overhauled versions of works originally made for the Ballets Russes: a new Firebird, followed by traditional and modern interpretations of L’Après-midi d’un faune, and MacMillan’s The Rite of Spring.

Zdenek Konvalina as Apollo

Zdenek Konvalina as Apollo - Photo: © Laurent Liotardo

Fokine’s original The Firebird, set to Stravinsky’s marvelous score, was an iconic piece in Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes. This newly choreographed version by George Williamson does away with the underlying folktale and concentrates on the transformation of the Firebird (danced by the superb Ksenia Ovsyanick). Abused by several figures (including a “celebrity” and an “army captain”), stripped of her feathers and headdress, this firebird falters, bruised and battered. However with new-found respect from the ‘villagers’ it rises, stronger than before and the ballet ends with a startling image of the Firebird raised high above the villagers, ablaze with light. Although steeped in tradition, there is something distinctly modern and relevant about the piece.

Revived from Nijinsky’s dance notation score, it was clear why L’Après-midi d’un faune, with its erotic caressing of a nymph’s scarf, caused a scandal when first performed in 1912. ENB have stayed very faithful to the original Léon Bakst designs which complement the ultra-stylised movements. Contrastingly, David Dawson’s Faun(e) does away with backdrop and costume to give clarity to the superb movement. Two dancers, dressed in neutral colours, move between two grand pianos playing a delightful arrangement of Debussy’s music. Rather than concentrating on the scandal of the original piece, Dawson has instead focused on the beauty of the music, leading to to a fantastic male Pas de Deux that I am eager to see again.

Concluding the first program was MacMillan’s Rite of Spring. Rather than a direct restaging, ENB has revamped the piece through new costumes by fashion designer Kinder Aggugini. Critic Luke Jennings dubbed it “Rite as The Hunger Games” which certainly describes the dystopian/futuristic feel the dark costumes and setting evoke. I thought these worked well with the ritualistic choreography. A tour de force like none other, I came out of the Coliseum almost in shock, needing a day or two to truly absorb the final image of the Chosen One’s lifeless body being tossed into the air.

Anaïs Chalendard as Polyhymnia - Photo: © Laurent Liotardo

Program 2

Whereas the first program showed how classical works can benefit from an updated feel, the second program served to remind us how timeless great classical choreography can be, presenting us Apollo, Le Train Bleu and Suite en Blanc, relatively untouched since their first outings.

Apollo is the tale of a young man coming of age. Costumes and music suggest a classical ballet work, but Balanchine’s choreography refuses to conform to traditional lines, so we have in Apollo a work that is truly ahead of its time. Along with the flowing segments of steps, there are several ‘snapshot’ images, akin to Grecian amphorae, that are almost works of art in themselves. Having first seen this piece last year at New York City Ballet, to me it has lost none of its impact.

Zdenek Konvalina as Apollo and Daria Klimentová as Terpsichore

Zdenek Konvalina as Apollo and Daria Klimentová as Terpsichore - Photo: © Laurent Liotardo

This was followed by Le beau gosse, a solo from Le Train Bleu choreographed by Nijinska for Anton Dolin at the 1924 Paris Olympics. Telling of a “handsome young chap” (a cheeky Vadim Muntagirov) enjoying a day at the beach, it was a pleasant, short piece with a hint of gymnastics to its choreography. A party piece that is guaranteed to make one smile. The costume, by Coco Chanel was as classy and refined a swimsuit I think you could ever get. I wonder if any of the pieces created for this year’s Olympics will still be performed in 90 years time?

Jeux, a new commission by Wayne Eagling, concentrates on the relationship between a choreographer and their muses. Inspired by Herbert Ross’ film Nijinsky and with a definite 20′s feel, which nods to the recent success of The Artist in the cinema. Superb lighting design (David Richardson) and simple costumes flesh out Eagling’s smart choreography which evokes strong emotions on stage. The focus on the choreographic process not only made the piece more interesting, but enhanced, for me, every other work.

Apollo ascends to Mount Parnassus

Apollo ascends to Mount Parnassus - Photo: © Laurent Liotardo

The finale was Lifar’s ever-impressive Suite en Blanc. The opening tableaux is one of the most striking images in ballet (it ranks up there with Balanchine’s Serenade), with the company resplendent in startling white tutus and romantic shirts. So striking, in fact, that it garnered its own round of applause before the dancing had even started. The piece perfectly showcases the technical prowess of dancers like Muntagirov, Yohah Acosta and Begoña Cao, be it in the tricky solos or the precise group sections. Stanton Welch once said of Suite en Blanc: “Dancers need to do this ballet to prove their worth” and there was no doubt that the company proved themselves with a superb performance.

With the Beyond Ballet Russes programs, ENB gave us the opportunity to see great classical works and exciting new creations. More importantly perhaps, they also demonstrated the immeasurable talents of their dancers and of the company as a whole. Bravo to all!

About Dave Wilson:

Having never danced before in his life, David took his first ballet class at age 23 on a whim. He quickly became addicted and has since been blogging regularly about his journey. Alongside many classes, he recently started performing with a local ballet group and takes any opportunity to watch ballet.

You can follow Dave on Twitter @DaveTriesBallet or read more about his journey at Dave Tries Ballet.