“I’m going to see the Pina Bausch,” was how I explained this evening to anyone who cared (and lots of people who didn’t). “It’s her Rite of Spring. The English National Ballet are only the third company to perform it, after Bausch’s own company and the Paris Opéra Ballet,” I would continue to anyone still listening. “It’s a real coup for them.”
“Oh that’s nice,” they might say, or at least I’d fill this in, in my head, so that I could keep talking. “That sounds like a fun evening.” “Yes, though, it’s part of a triple bill, there’s going to be a William Forsythe piece and a Hans van Manen piece too. But I’m there for the Bausch. Everyone will be.”
Well, yes and no. Le Sacre du printemps did thrill and astonish as hoped, but it came at the end of an evening of remarkable dancing and choreography that was as much a coup for the ENB as any single piece. While ‘the Bausch’ stunned with its brutal, primal energy, pushing the dancers to compulsive, compelling, fierce extremes, William Forsythe’s In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated was a startling work polished to a chrome shine, and Hans van Manen’s Adagio Hammerklavier was gracefully and judiciously performed.
In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated sees nine green lycra-clad dancers in various iterations of duet, ensemble and solo extrapolate on a classical vocabulary in a way that still feels bracingly new, thirty years after its premiere. Thom Willems’s jaw-trembling, excitingly abrasive score perfectly offsets the deliberately off-balance, strenuous choreography. Sometimes pitched by the ENB dancers a little too far past an elegant hard limit, there are nevertheless some tight performances that blend percussive strength and lightning-bright sharpness without losing too much of a tightly sprung delicacy (Precious Adams particularly stands out). To all my non-dance friends who patiently sat through my explanations about ‘seeing the Bausch’, you would probably be pretty gripped by all those super speedy, super high splits, if that helps.
Adagio Hammerklavier is much more recognisably ‘classical’, and its dreamy, precise explorations into shifting balances and lifts are pleasing to watch. It does feel like fallow ground between In the Middle and The Rite of Spring, but the change of pace is perhaps necessary and nuanced in an otherwise hurtlingly energetic evening.
Then comes ‘the Bausch’. The Bausch is stunning. Vampirically fascinating, it draws and drains its audience until they feel as emotional pummelled as the dancers look physically putzed. Performed on a raked peat floor, The Rite of Spring, set to Igor Stravinsky’s iconic score, is a ferocious howl of a work, as darkly sexual and symbolically rich as an Angela Carter story.
It opens with the lights marking a distinct X on the stage. One girl lies face down on a mysterious red cloth; another runs diagonally down the X to lift her dress over her face. All the girls – and there is a clear sense that these performers as ‘girls’ and not women – wear loose dresses the colour of bleached ducklings. As the rest of the girls gather, they move with rawness and churning emotion, pounding their thighs and dropping into deep pliés like cut marionettes.
The girls will be joined by the boys – again, that youthful distinction is clear – who are topless and clad in black trousers. Girls and boys dance in their separate groups like confused herd animals straining for a suppressed wildness, or circle, swing and pull at one another like combatants. The Rite comes to the fore when a sacrificial maiden – Francesca Velicu, outstanding in this role – is chosen from the girls to wear the mysterious cloth, pulled over her by a single boy who breaks from his herd. It’s a red dress. It could represent anything from menstruation to loss of virginity to violence towards women, but, whatever it ‘means’, its effect is bloody and visceral, and the maiden’s fate – powerfully, exhaustingly danced – finally sees Velicu, one breast bared, collapse face down into the peat. The only reason I didn’t throw my hands in the air and whoop along with everyone else is that I didn’t want to lamp any other audience members with my notebook.
The problem with triple bills is that there usually winds up being a favoured and less favoured piece, but this evening is still a testament to the English National Ballet’s coterie of talent and the intelligent, perceptive leadership of artistic director Tamara Rojo. And ‘the Bausch’? I saw the Bausch. It’s bloody amazing.
The ENB’s triple bill is on until 1st April at Sadler’s Wells. Click here for more details.