A little under two years ago, English National Ballet seemed a stagnant company: not only had Wayne Eagling suddenly departed as Artistic Director, but faced with a 15% reduction in its funding, the company seemed overly dependent on long runs of The Nutcracker and Hollywood-inspired extravaganza Strictly Gershwin, attracting criticism along the way. Leaving aside the question of cuts, this touring company has always received significantly less funding than England’s two other big ballet companies, Birmingham Royal Ballet and The Royal Ballet. So, on the face of it, Eagling’s successor would have little room for radical changes.
But from the moment she was appointed as new AD, Tamara Rojo’s vision was clear: first, she announced her intention to shake up ENB’s repertory, commissioning new work and fresh mixed bills to feature alongside box-office draws like Swan Lake and The Nutcracker. Then, she also launched a big image makeover, from the company’s modern new logo and stylish production posters, to lucrative partnerships with British fashion brands. And to top it all off, in a move that delighted British fans, she brought Alina Cojocaru on board.
As we begin 2014 and The Nutcracker season draws to a close, there is a real sense of excitement in the Company, even though Wayne Eagling’s production of this classic itself, now in its third year, sticks very closely to ideals of tradition and family-friendliness. This can be a blessing and a curse: for many ballet fans who are able to see The Nutcracker every year (and possibly for the many dancers involved), watching the same story year after year can take its toll. But at least for me, Tchaikovsky’s grandiose music never fails to deliver the chills and pull me into Clara’s journey, from the Stahlbaums’s Christmas party to the Kingdom of Sweets.
In this staging, Clara appears to us as an adult. Here, Alina Cojocaru’s performance couldn’t be more affecting. She looks, lives and breathes the part and it was particularly moving to see her in the earlier sections of the ballet, as they brought back memories of when she first performed Clara in Sir Peter Wright’s production.
There are some great ideas in this production: the ice skaters’s scene is clever, and I loved the balloon that takes Clara, Drosselmeyer and his nephew to the Kingdom of Sweets. I also enjoyed that Clara has a sister, Louise, who is the main dancing character at the Christmas party (getting to see more of Ksenia Ovsyanick is always a good thing!). Another clever touch is the substitution of Drosselmeyer’s mechanical dolls for the characters from the Kingdom of the Sweets, which was effective as a foreshadowing device and as a foundation to Clara’s dream.
There are some equally interesting twists in the Kingdom of Sweets’s divertissements. Excluding a rather bizarre Arabian (never a favourite of mine, truth be told), they are all very enjoyable. Eagling used the Waltz of the Flowers to give the men a bigger role in the ballet. Plus, having Clara and the Nephew instead of the Sugarplum fairy and her cavalier has always been a point that makes narrative sense to me. Rounded off by Tchaikovsky’s sublime score, ENB’s artists gave warm performances in all these scenes, with special mention to Nancy Osbaldeston‘s crispy footwork as the lead Chinese girl and to Joan Sebastian Zamora’s energetic Russian.
Earlier in the season, I had also caught ENB’s brand new Le Corsaire, based on Anna-Marie Holmes’s staging for Boston Ballet, and ABT. For a company continually on the move, the decision to take on Le Corsaire seemed like a gamble: could they make a (relatively) unknown ballet a success? Eight Medoras, six Conrads, and several shows later, we know the answer: Le Corsaire has been praised by critics and audiences alike, with Mr Crisp hailing it a “roaring success”. The production now sets sail for London’s Coliseum for 13 performances starting next week.
I was able to catch two performances (opening night in Milton Keynes and later, in Oxford), and yes, the production is a winner, with stunning designs and great, fast-paced dancing. At the premiere, Alina Cojocaru brought depth to what can be a ‘barely-there’ story, and Vadim Muntagirov was clearly having fun playing the pirate, soaring across the stage, while in Oxford, Tamara Rojo and guest star (and latest Royal Ballet recruitee) Matthew Golding displayed sizzling chemistry. On both occasions, ENB’s rising stars also shone, dancing with new-found confidence. Indeed, the striking feature of Rojo’s company is its collective sense of excitement and “heart”, as a fellow attendee described it, which is clear for all to see.
With Le Corsaire, Rojo has given ENB not only a work that offers plenty of opportunities to the dancers, but also a production that looks and feels world-class. For the audience, there is a further reward: ENB is delivering on the idea that you can see a Met-worthy cast, in a big-scale work, in your local theatre for less than £30 (I paid £25 for a third row stalls seat in Oxford). Now that is truly bringing ballet to the people!
English National Ballet performs The Nutcracker at the London Coliseum until 5 January 2014, followed by Le Corsaire from 9 – 19 January 2014. Le Corsaire also tours Manchester 11-15 February. For more information visit English National Ballet’s website or follow English National Ballet on Twitter @ENBallet.