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Fernanda Oliveira and Fabian Reimair in Russell Maliphant's Echoes. Image courtesy of English National Ballet

Season’s Greetings

English National Ballet's virtual stage

The sputtering stop-start of lockdown measures in the U.K. has wiped most of the 2020 dance season from the calendar, including a few live holiday performances that were optimistically (and, in hindsight, unrealistically) scheduled this autumn, like a bill of world premieres from English National Ballet. But it’s the year of make-do, and few companies have the leadership and resources to salvage so much from the wreckage as ENB, who swiftly rejigged those new works into a series of pay-per-view films for homebound audiences. It might be an emergency stopgap, but the digital programme works hard to capture the versatility of ENB’s dancers and dancemakers. It also underscores their resilience in the face of unprecedented (and ongoing) interruption.

One of the early broadcasts was Yuri Possokhov’s Senseless Kindness, an emotive quartet dabbed with shades of romance and melancholy. There’s a Russian flavour to the piece, helped along by a Shostakovich piano trio and little dramas that emerge between its skittling notes: a burgeoning affair here, a friendly tussle there. The costumes—flat caps for the men, floral A-lines for the women—conjure a wartime sensibility, a feeling of tenderness and resolve in the face of something larger than their own stories.

Emma Hawes, Isaac Hernandez, Francesco Gabriele Frola and Alison McWhinney in Senseless Kindness by Yuri Possokhov. Image courtesy of English National Ballet

Possokhov’s phrasing comes in cascades, the dancers rippling through balletic port de bras and tinkly petit allegro, their footwork punctuated with floaty fouettés and attitude turns. The camera lingers on soft, virtuosic adagio from Isaac Hernandez and Alison McWhinney; later it races to follow newly minted lead principal Francesco Gabriele Frola as he scoots around in a jazzy solo, bopping and doubling back on himself like a character from “West Side Story.” The dancers mostly move in ones and twos, but interaction between all four comes halfway through, the group braiding arms in a tidy ensemble.

Between the slow-motion shots and the sun-drenched lighting design, it’s a busy stage. The performance shines brightest when it settles into moments of quiet—a lingering arabesque against stripes of beams, a tender sequence of floorwork, rays pouring in from the rafters and wings.

Erina Takahashi and James Streeter in Laid in Earth, a film by Thomas James choreographed by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. Image via English National Ballet

With Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s Laid In Earth, we move from camera-friendly embellishments to highly stylised cinema. The piece starts with two dancers skulking through a ghost-scape of fog and twisted tree roots, the lower half of the frame flipped to create an Upside Down where reality blurs into the uncanny. Erina Takahashi prowls the upright half, her moves mirrored below by a shadowy underworld avatar (Precious Adams). Fantastical makeup is revealed in flashes: glinting body paint, eyelashes like spindly twigs. Epic music from “Dido and Aeneas” adds another layer of sensory richness.

The pair brings a tidy polish to Cherkaoui’s sweeping modern language, scooping their limbs and releasing them in neat, contracted gusts. Takahashi is especially elegant amid the grotesquery, writhing in the earth like she’s swimming without water, flying without sky. James Streeter and Jeffrey Cirio creep in for some spruce partnering, but this work belongs to the women, who teem with grace and lofty resolution.

BalletBoyz founders Michael Nunn and William Trevitt are the filmmakers behind Echoes, a restorative foil to the efforts above, which are more schematic in style. Russell Maliphant’s choreography treks his signature terrain: abstract sentiments and slow, meditative swells of motion. Flowing fabrics give fluidity to the ensemble’s lines, while light-touch special effects—overlaid shots, water-inspired graphics—enhance the feeling of a dance among waves. The performance is deliberate but not cautious, even but not monotonous. There’s no climax as such, but an eerie phrase with cloned imagery comes close, the group swirling into a pulsing, rhythmic vortex.

Works from Arielle Smith and ENB’s own Stina Quagebeur have also graced the virtual stage this month, and I’m guessing more will follow as winter progresses and live performance remains impractical. Spirits have been low this holiday season, but these efforts to safeguard the stage are definitely something to cheer about.

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