English National Ballet has launched the New Year with two double bills anchored by August Bournonville’s beloved “La Sylphide.” Over the course of a two-week run, the Romantic staple—a flutter of forest sprites and lively Highlanders—is alternately paired with Kenneth Macmillan’s “Song of the Earth” and Roland Petit’s “Le Jeune Homme et la Mort,” both of which dedicate a principal role to Death.
At first glance, these couplings seem incongruous, a clash of honeyed classical and hard-hitting modern, but themes of passion and loss are central to all three ballets, and arise neatly in both bills. Links are especially visible in the “Sylphide” / “Jeune Homme” pairing—both centre on a man chasing an untenable relationship, a pursuit that ultimately proves deadly.
In Petit’s piece, a duet created in 1946 to a libretto by Jean Cocteau, the action takes place against the angsty backdrop of post-war Paris. Cordoned in an attic, a man clenches and trembles, fixated on a hot-and-cold mistress who eventually goads him into suicide. The ballet was designed to showcase male virtuosity, and Ivan Vasiliev—famed ex-Bolshoi star, dancing here as a guest principal—does it great justice, bashing out mind-bending dives and scissor-kicks, gymnastic leaps and balances. With ENB artistic director Tamara Rojo in the femme fatale role, the number surges with starpower.
Petit personally trained Vasiliev for this role, and the dancer first performed it with ENB back in 2011, just weeks after the choreographer’s death, to high praise. Seven years later and the electricity continues to crackle as Vasiliev—sharp, shirtless and perpetually grimacing—lurches his way through the existential drama.
Rojo is likewise charged, slinky in mien and razor-sharp in technique. After tormenting Vasiliev with her spidery fingers and perma-smirk, she dons a hooded cloak and Grim Reaper mask, dragging her victim into the night. (Side note: when death comes for me, I sincerely hope it’s Tamara Rojo prowling en pointe, puffing a cigarette.) Yes, all the mugging is melodramatic, and yes, the choreography is aggressively masculine, but the performances here make it an irresistible piece of theatre—thrilling to the last staggered beat.
The programme pulls a tonal 180 with “La Sylphide,” a nineteenth-century classic about a Scotsman infatuated with a magical sylph. This particular production, by Frank Andersen, is peppered with fanciful touches skirting the dark-edged tale, in which Highlander James trails the sprite and, in his desperation to possess her, ends up crushing her to death. There are jaunty moustaches and twirls of tartan, dainty fairy wings and cascades of tulle. The set design flits between two inviting displays—a snug Scottish estate and a dappled woodland—and sports some handsome bits of stagecraft, including a flower-laden swing to whisk away our departed heroine.
Opening night of the bill saw first soloist Alison McWhinney in the sylph role, opposite soloist Aitor Arrieta’s James. McWhinney puts a mischievous spin on a character often played as passive, teasing James and taking visible delight in his attention, a distinction that intensifies the tragedy of the narrative. When James captures the sylph, violently knocking off her wings, she’s no longer an abstract creature, an ‘other’ unbound by human emotion or mortality; she’s a woman with everyday fears and desires, unfairly punished for only wanting to go so far—a startlingly familiar portrait in the wake of intensifying global conversations about sexual conduct and consent. McWhinney’s expressiveness is compelling, particularly the fright that passes over her face the moment force supplants the pair’s flirting. And her precision is lovely—picture-perfect arabesques, her hand and neck movements just so.
Arrieta offers a simpler character portrayal, not quite achieving the nuanced charisma Isaac Hernández—who stars in the alternate programme—manages to pull off. Here James reads as plainly arrogant, a flat but neat enough interpretation of a guy who ditches his bride on their wedding day to obsess over someone he’s never even spoken to. Arrieta’s sturdy posture and commanding leaps comport with this entitled persona, and his solos are supple, easily capturing the brisk Bournonville style.
Respectable character work also emerges from Francesca Velicu, who pops as James’s buoyant fiancée Effy, and Stina Quagebeur, suitably scary as the witch who orchestrates the ballet’s tragic conclusion. And hats off to the ensemble of sylphs, who form a spry hive, silky and steadfast in their uniformity.
With their robust themes and admirable performances, the two productions form a strong showing from the company, which grows ever more dynamic under Rojo’s artistic direction.