English National Ballet has just finished its winter season at the London Coliseum. In this programme, audiences had the opportunity to revisit Roland Petit’s 1946 masterpiece Le Jeune Homme et la Mort, a ballet that remains a star vehicle for so many male dancers who have taken on a challenging role originally created on Jean Babilée. This work was paired with August Bournonville’s La Sylphide, here directed by Eva Kloborg and Frank Andersen.
Below are five reasons why we loved this double bill:
1) Sexy and Magnetic
Ivan Vasilev is well-known for taking incredible risks on stage, especially when unleashing his gravity-defying jumps. In Le Jeunne Homme, he is perfectly cast. He complements his superb technique with real drama, creating pathos and energy. Ivan is magnetic in his despair and has powerful chemistry with the vixen-like Tamara Rojo.
2) Young Talent
La Sylphide featured a number of young promising dancers in pivotal roles. Cast as James, Aitor Arrieta displayed beautiful jumps and strong acting. Henry Dowden was a wilful Gurn and Francesca Velicu created an expressive Effie. We will be rooting for them!
3) Powerful Women
Over the last few years, women have been leaving a bigger mark on our cultural fabric, portraying strong female characters on TV (Game of Thrones, Big Little Lies, The Handmaid’s Tale) and on the big screen (Wonder Woman, The Post, Ladybird). It’s great to also see a ballet bill where leading women have agency. In Le Jeunne Homme, we see a “woman” who has full power over “the young man”. In La Sylphide, the witch Madge gets her revenge on James (and arguably over all men) by making him destroy all that he holds dear, whereas Effie takes the opposite route, choosing to put the past behind and overcoming her heartbreak.
4) Gorgeous Designs
Le Jeune Homme has fabulously atmospheric sets by Georges Wakhévitch. They perfectly capture Cocteau’s libretto and make the coup de théâtre at the end – when the set rises to reveal the rooftops of Paris – as surprising as the ballet’s shocking finale.
The Andersen-Kloborg production of La Sylphide features 2003 designs by Mikael Melbye. Despite being no longer in repertory at RDB (having been replaced by an interesting new take on the classic), it remains elegant and traditional, with a palette of greens and reds for the corps the ballet, and the ethereal romantic skirts for the sylphs, contrasting the worlds of men and fairy without too much fuss.
In both ballets, a woman entices a young man, who is driven to obsessive behaviour and, ultimately, to tragedy. They also feature ambiguous endings that can be interpreted at many levels. Is the young man being forced to commit suicide for love, for his art? What really makes him so desperate? And what of James’s relationship with Madge, why is she so intent on revenge, did she know him before the first encounter in the farm? Ballets like these bring out what’s best in renowned dance actors and offer rewarding discussions among us audience members.