Just a few beats after the curtain went down on English National Ballet’s roundly admired run of “Le Corsaire,” the company threw itself into another shiny production: a gala to celebrate its platinum anniversary. In 1950, ENB was an upstart troupe with a makeshift title (London Festival Ballet). Even with two marquee names attached—Alicia Markova and Anton Dolin, darlings of the Ballets Russes—the road to success was riven with financial pitfalls. Fast-forward 70 years, though, and ENB’s an immutable presence on the British stage, still rocking starpower on the mantle, with Tamara Rojo doubling up as artistic director/lead principal since 2012.
The gala’s first act is a highlights reel of productions past and present, major and modest, with a whopping 16 excerpts on show. Intermittent videos reveal details about the ENB backstory: the rough-and-ready conditions of early tours, where dancers slept eight to a hotel room, reflections from Dame Beryl Grey and other alums on memorable choreographers and performances. There are quickfire costume changes and set flips needed to keep the show flowing, but the current is mostly steady. A special note of recognition for conductor Gavin Sutherland, who oversaw a smooth orchestral flux from Prokofiev and Stravinsky to Bizet and Rachmaninoff.
Naturally, rosy attention is paid to company classics—Rudolf Nureyev’s “Romeo & Juliet” for one, which the choreographer famously headlined in 1977—but the event also trumpets ENB’s incarnation under Rojo’s leadership. There’s a glimpse of Akram Khan’s “Giselle” from 2016, one of her shrewdest commissions, with a handful of awards and a global audience of nearly 400,000 in its pocket. It’s the migration scene on display here, drums pounding from the pit as students from the ENB School gallop in hunched, creaturely form. We also see the wave section of Khan’s WW1 tribute “Dust,” with its pounding, bony undulations, and a duet from Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s “Broken Wings,” part of 2016’s all-female “She Persisted” programme. The latter is a chance to see Rojo herself in action, all fluttering hands and stormy extensions in her rendition of Frida Kahlo.
Rojo also turned heads in a pas de deux from Roland Petipa’s “Carmen,” knocking out six o’clock penchés and Fleabag-style winks at the audience opposite a deliciously agile Francesco Gabriele Frola. Meanwhile, four beauties in tulle evoke the sweeter side of the canon with the Jewels divertissement from “Sleeping Beauty,” a constellation of star-bright allegro. Interestingly, many of the classics—“Coppélia,” “La Sylphide,” “Romeo & Juliet”—are repped with big-group mazurkas and ballroom scenes rather than the starry-eyed duets you might expect. The decision seems aimed at maximising airtime for the corps and character artists—a welcome gesture in a company of 75.
That’s not to say there isn’t a spotlight on standout individuals. Frola had a brilliant opening night, transforming the preening affectations of George Balanchine’s “Apollo” variation into an intoxicating ode to male virtuosity. Fernanda Oliveria and Junor Souza served up luminous acrobatics in Ben Stevenson’s “Three Preludes,” including a heroic over-the-head arabesque, while Precious Adams brought Big Apple glamour to Balanchine’s city-slicking “Who Cares?” venturing ever-quickening piqué turns even after a face-first tumble. Jeffrey Cirio scissored away valiantly in Christopher Bruce’s “Swansong,” but his star turn came leading the boys in William Forsythe’s “Playlist (Track 2),” a banger of body-pumping epaulement and belly-baring mesh. His fouettés make a seamless assist to the slam-dunk finale.
Some lesser-known picks round out the first act—a zippy farruca from Antonio Ruiz Soler’s “The Three-Cornered Hat,” a slinging duet from Derek Deane’s “Strictly Gershwin”—and there’s also a quick turn from ENB’s youth company, who bound across the stage sporting big smiles and billowing tapestries.
From here, we’re onto a full-length performance of “Etudes,” Harald Landers’ metafictional tribute to ballet training. It’s slow-going after the machine-gun pow of the first half, the energy braking as the cast churns out a procession of classroom exercises at the barre: tendus, balancés, rond de jambes. There’s a facelessness to their praxis—a nod to the repetitive, quotidian nature of mastering your art—and while we soon accelerate towards ‘performance,’ it’s a while before personalities emerge: Shiori Kase’s demure prima, Frola and Isaac Hernández’s bold, gallant danseurs. It’s all a little … polite. A relief, then, when the confetti cannons blow and we return to party mode. From ENB’s legacy to its flair, there’s a lot to celebrate here.