Following January’s Song of the Earth, La Sylphide and Le Jeune Homme et la Mort performances, English National Ballet is back with one of its less traditional bills that the company has become known for under artistic director Tamara Rojo. The Voices of America programme seeks to celebrate the dynamism of neoclassical ballet from North American dance makers – even if its undoubted titan, George Balanchine, is conspicuously absent.
Instead, the evening features that other towering figure, Jerome Robbins, with the eternally visceral The Cage. In it, a creature – the weaving strings above suggest spiders; the jagged movements hint at insects more generally – is born to an all-female tribe and must learn to kill to survive. It’s Giselle meets David Attenborough.
As the Novice, Jurgita Dronina contorts her body in strange ways, as if discovering movement for the first time. After disposing of the first intruder, she grows in confidence and, despite a tender, reluctant, second pas de deux that oscillates between sharp angles and soft lines, guided by the Queen (BegoÃ±a Cao) and with animal instinct kicking in, she kills again.
Dronina and Cao are immensely watchable, with gorgeous turns and a fierce focus, but both look too neat, too pristine, not quite making enough of the intrinsic ‘ugliness’ of Robbins’ choreography to truly terrify. Equally, the corps, in their flesh-coloured unitards, mouths agape, are functional but lack uniformity and the biting menace that Stravinsky’s tremendous score demands.
Continuing the animal theme is a revival of Aszure Barton’s Fantastic Beings, first shown as part of ENB’s groundbreaking She Said mixed bill in 2016 and freshly reworked this season.
Opening with a giant all-seeing eye and a sprinkling of gold dust, Barton’s sharp, demanding choreography aligns perfectly with Mason Bates’ dissonant, Stravinsky-esque score. Isaac Hernandez leads the piece and seems to relish Barton’s choreography, filled with huge jetÃ©s and showy chaÃ®nÃ©s. Crystal Costa, who gets a particularly fun role, all swaying hips and flirtatious kicks, is another standout.
But, above all, Fantastic Beings is an ensemble piece – and the corps are winsome on this front. They are wonderful in the final section, their energy never dipping against the relentless build-up of the music, every little jump and change of arms precise without losing the animalistic undertones. The animal suits seem surplus to requirements, but it’s an overall fun and surreal piece.
The main course, though, is William Forsythe. First up is Approximate Sonata 2016, which ENB is performing for the first time. It uses the familiar trope of a rehearsal, with a bare stage and pared-back costumes; but in Forsythe’s hands, it feels like a real treat to see his raw, beautiful movements without the distractions of sparkly tutus and elaborate sets.
Most welcome is the return of Alina Cojocaru following maternity leave. As she walks on stage with Joseph Caley before the auditorium lights even go out, the audience falls immediately silent. And Cojocaru remains a truly arresting presence; the effortlessness with which she handles Forsythe’s incessant balances and extensions is only betrayed by the rapid breathing you can hear over the dialled-down soundscape.
Precious Adams should also get a nod, with a confidence that makes it impossible to take your eyes off her; Aaron Robison, as her partner, pales in comparison.
Cojocaru, capably if not dazzlingly partnered by Caley, returns with a funny, sexy final pas de deux. When she asks “Want to try one more time?”, the crowd laughs, and they start again as the curtain slowly comes down, their bodies in perpetual motion. I could’ve watched that all over again immediately.
The climax, though, is the brand new Forsythe piece, Playlist (Track 1, 2). Forsythe hasn’t created anything for a British ballet company in 20 years and, my, what a marvel.
Here, Forsythe has set what are in essence very conventional classical lines against two surprising pieces of music. We start with the soulful rhythms of Peven Everett and the line-up of 12 men (perhaps as a counter to the female-led Robbins) in what feels almost like class in the centre, all understated ports de bra and petit allegro work. But the second part moves up about five gears and, accompanied by the house beats of Lion Babe/Jax Jones, the dancers take turns to perform the sort of bravado choreography Forsythe is known for, and it’s a masterclass in lightning-fast footwork.
It’s a consciously testosterone-fuelled piece, right down to their names being emblazoned on the back of their shirts (because, y’know, #ladsontour). Purists will no doubt hate it – a subtle exploration of masculinity this ain’t – but the dancers are so evidently energised by this collaboration that we really feel it. A total blast.
So here’s the thing. For all the talk about elitism in ballet, it feels like ENB, with its touring remit and surprising programming, is doing more than any other UK classical company to not be seen as fuddy-duddy. But if people don’t go to see these more ‘experimental’ works, ENB will have no choice but to rely more heavily on the Nutcrackers and the Swan Lakes – then, really, why would it stand out? Voices of America is only on at Sadlers Wells – with a London audience that arguably is more used to seeing all kinds of works, not just the classics – and it’s not expensive to go. Yet, disappointingly, there are hundreds of tickets left for each night. Please, you know what to do.
Voices of America is on at Sadlers Wells until 21st April. Book tickets here.