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Ode to Spring

Under Tamara Rojo’s direction the English National Ballet have become a strong, ambitious company. Alongside the classical ballets, Rojo has made contemporary works a feature of the company’s repertoire and their latest triple bill comprises the signature works of three of modern dance’s key choreographers—William Forsythe, Hans van Manen and Pina Bausch.

Performance

English National Ballet: “Bausch/Forsythe/van Manen”

Place

Sadler’s Wells, London, UK, March 23-April 1, 2017

Words

Rachel Elderkin

Pina Bausch's “Rite of Spring” by English National Ballet. Photograph Laurent Liotardo

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While the seasonal “Nutcracker,” along with classical favourites such as “Swan Lake” or “Giselle,” may be staples for the company, these dancers are equally at home with more contemporary repertoire—Akram Khan’s recent re-imagining of “Giselle” was met with critical acclaim. Here, with a triple bill to follow up “Modern Masters”the 2015 programme that saw works by Jiří Kylián, John Neumeier and the company’s first outing of William Forsythe’s “In The Middle, Somewhat Elevated”ENB once again prove their versatility.

“In The Middle, Somewhat Elevated,” is the opening piece. Beneath two golden apples the dancers nonchalantly assess one another before Forsythe’s choreography explodes into life. First created upon some of Paris Opera’s most notable dancers, including a young Sylvie Guillem, there’s an inherent competitiveness in Forsythe’s choreography that strives to bring out the best in its dancers.

The work moves at a rapid pace, the choreography flicking between pas de deux, solo and unison. Different phrases unfold simultaneously as variations are passed between groups, while directions and facings constantly alter.

While this structuring is something we have grown accustomed to seeing the demands of Forsythe’s choreography are no less challenging today. The dancers of ENB meet this with a fierce display of technicality, their extensions endless, their movements clean and precise. Dressed simply in green leotards and black tights it’s an unforgiving work—set to Thom Willem’s aggressive, driving score the steps come one after the other, leaving little room for thought or error.

The ability to reach beyond the work’s technical complexities seems to sit more comfortably with some dancers than others. The stand-out performances come from Crystal Costa and Cesar Corrales who deliver a level of athleticism that bristles with energy while Precious Adams also makes her mark with her sinuous yet powerful style.

Hans van Manen's “Adagio Hammerklavier” is slow and studied in contrast. From Van Manen’s elegant choreography to the women’s floating white dresses and the gently billowing backcloth, every aspect of this work captures the serenity of Beethoven’s adagio from his piano concerto, opus 106 (masterfully played by concert pianist, Olga Khoziainova).

The considered unison of the opening, classical steps set in strict time with the steady beat of the score, soon softens as the work moves into three pas de deux, one for each couple.

Each has its own quality and, combined with van Manen's careful choreography, these varying qualities draw the attention to the complexities of Beethoven's score. Fernanda Oliveira and James Forbat's lyrical yet passionate style of movement is perfectly suited to the light fluidity of their duet, movements that run with the melody. In a later pas de deux danced by Lauretta Summerscales and Fabian Reimair, the precision and control rendered each step echoes the steady, pronounced bass line.

From Summerscales' graceful purity to Rojo’s precision—accompanied by attentive partnering from Isaac Hernández—“Adagio Hammerklavier” develops in harmony with the deepening textures of Beethoven's score. It's a timeless, understated and beautiful piece—elegance defined.

In perhaps Rojo’s most ambitious move in this programme, the company close the evening with Pina Bausch’s “Rite of Spring.” It’s the first time the work has been seen in the U.K. since 2008 and ENB are only the second ballet company to perform Bausch’s iconic piece.

The all-consuming energy of Stravinsky’s music flows seamlessly into Bausch’s choreography—it’s the kind of work that hits you with the raw power of its energy and vision and, to ENB’s credit, you get this same experience watching these dancers perform. A sense of anticipation, bordering on panic, arises from the 28 dancers that fill the stage, their focus absorbed by the primal ritual in which they are the participants.

The women enter first, bare foot and clothed in thin, skin-coloured slips. They seem distracted, their focus centred upon a red bundle that is passed between them. Expansive, balletic movement contrasts with hunched, nervous postures. When the men join them, advancing as one testosterone-fuelled mass across the soil-strewn stage, they huddle together, distressed and helpless.

Throughout “Rite of Spring” the power play between the genders is excruciatingly clear. Yet in its primal, ritualistic setting the divide feels more animalistic than human; natural rather than enforced. The women in this work may be vulnerable but the red bundle they take so much care over is not simply a symbol of the impending sacrifice of one of their number. Its bright-red colour brings the image of blood and subsequently of menstruation to mind, and in that the women hold an empowering bond. While death may be the culmination of this piece, in this ritual ode to spring there’s also an inherent joy for life and the power that humans have to create and nurture this, as much as take it away.

As ‘the chosen one’ Francesca Velicu (ENB’s youngest member) gives her all to the role. In her audible whimpers and the thrashing attack of her movement you feel her pure distress as she dances to her death. Through the raw energy of their movement ENB maintain the work’s primal drive and its absorbing, exhilarating appeal.

To bring a contemporary work from one of modern dance’s pioneering choreographers into the repertoire of a ballet company is a gamble, but it’s one that pays off. Bausch’s “Rite of Spring” is a gripping close to a bill that enforces the growing strength and versatility of this company.

Rachel Elderkin


Rachel Elderkin is a freelance dance artist and writer based in London. She is a contributor to The Stage and a member of the UK's Critics' Circle. She has previously written for publications including Fjord Review, Exeunt, British Theatre Guide, londondance.com, the Skinny (Scotland) and LeftLion (Nottingham) where she was Art Editor.

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