English National Ballet continues its strategy to distinguish itself from other companies under the artistic direction of Tamara Rojo with Ecstasy & Death taking them in a radically different direction from the productions of Sleeping Beauty and Nutcracker so far this season.
That said, ENB has chosen to close the mixed programme with a classical favourite. It doesn’t get more classical than Harald Lander’s Etudes which is essentially a very elaborate ballet class. Starting at the barre in elegant lines and dressed in plain tutus, the dancers perform the simple, warm-up exercises in perfect synchronicity – tendus, frappés, ronds de jambe. As Czerney’s études (exercises) increase in complexity, so do the ballet sequences, encompassing attitudes en pointe, pirouettes.
And once the barres are gone, the dancers just get better and better as the performance factor is ramped up, just as it would in a normal class. There’s something very pleasing in seeing so many people executing fouettés or dizzying beats in such perfect unison. By the time it gets to the grand allegro (traditionally at the end of a class, comprising big jumps from the corner) and the music builds to the finale, it’s hard to suppress one’s awe.
Erina Takahasi, the lead ballerina, manages to evoke all the princesses from every story ballet with her delicate phrasing, despite being a plotless piece of work and set against a black backdrop. She has a tremendous amount of balances, but not once does she falter – she remains rock solid without making a show of it. Credit, too, to her main partner, James Forbat, who always gets to her in perfect timing, never too early or too late as to break from the music.
But, most of all, there seems to be no stopping Vadim Muntagirov, the third star of Etudes. And with seemingly more tours en l’air, gigantic leaps and other bravura steps than anyone else, he simply outdances the choreography.
At 50 minutes, it’s too long, and there are too many episodes. But, as a company showpiece, Etudes is like no other – everyone is given the chance to dazzle.
Beauty comes in a radically different form in the ENB premier of Jirí Kylian’s Petite Mort. It’s a smart move – just as the Royal Ballet has been reinvigorated by the arrival of Wayne McGregor in recent years, ENB could well find a new lease of life with a more modern approach.
And it’s thrilling to see the 12 dancers, in beautiful (almost Victorian S&M) costumes by Joke Visser, attacking this totally different vocabulary – all bent knees, sculpted arms and contracting upper bodies. Petite Mort literally means “little death”, but it has the additional meaning of orgasm – the clearest manifestation of the mixed bill’s themes of ecstasy and death.
This dichotomy worms itself into the choreography, where danger is juxtaposed with beauty, passion is contrasted with manipulation. While I find the fencing foils ultimately gimmicky, their strong yet flexible blades do capture the ying and yang of the choreography.
There is also a wider look at reality and fiction – as hinted by the big, black dresses on wheels that almost act as masks and the large piece of fabric that depicts scene changes like pulling wool over our eyes.
Each pas de deux becomes more sexually charged than the last, and the final two – danced by Laurreta Summerscales and Esteban Berlanga, and Marize Fumero and Muntagirov – showed how well the dancers take to this new style, their backs arched and legs hyperextended. But glimpses of inward-turning knees and flickering footwork hint at something more sinister.
Sandwiched between the two works is the gritty, sexy Le Jeune Homme et la Mort by Roland Petit. ENB has invited Paris Opera’s Nicolas Le Riche to dance the lead role, a well-known interpreter of the part and who was mentored by Rudolf Nureyev – surely one of the definitive Young Man along with Baryshnikov.
The frustrated protagonist, longing for his lover, mournfully contorts his body and executes some manic entrechats, not to mention all the chair-kicking and handstands on tables. It’s a virtuoso part that requires a great deal of control, and Le Riche makes it look easy.
Rojo herself takes on the role of the Girl, who turns up at the Young Man’s studio with the sole purpose of humiliating and tormenting him. But, sadly, it’s not a particularly meaty part – cigarette-smoking is combined with high kicks, head turns and aggressive bourrées. Every movement is repeated, indicating her long-standing torture.
There is nothing subtle about Le Jeune Homme et la Mort – and Petit likely didn’t intend it to be. But I find Le Riche’s acting lacking in the subtlety that would have made Jean Cocteau’s story – already compressed at 20 minutes with little room for character development – more believable. Thus this version is more of a melodrama and, when the noose is presented to the Young Man, we are left feeling indifferent about his fate.
When the Young Man is led by Death to the roof of the building and the stunning view of post-Liberation Paris is revealed for the first time, it feels a shame that this gorgeous backdrop lasts for mere minutes – a suggestion of missed opportunities, life cut short. And that’s how I feel about Le Jeune Homme et la Mort – almost, but not quite. There is no denying that it’s a very stylish – and stylised – piece of modern choreography, but it doesn’t develop much beyond that.