English National Ballet has spent recent months fighting off rumours about its cohesion, or purported lack thereof, under Tamara Rojo’s leadership; whispers have abounded alleging a hostile environment and a worrying degree of turnover, with around a third of ENB’s dancers having left the company in the last two years. That said, the company’s latest bill betrays no signs of such disquiet, presenting a troupe that looks assured, energetic and game to try its hand at a an increasingly diverse array of styles.
Billed as a tribute to North American neoclassical ballet, “Voices of America” aligns works from twentieth-century powerhouses Jerome Robbins and William Forsythe alongside a revived Aszure Barton number from ENB’s 2016 “She Said” bill—a gamut that takes in a live orchestral score and pulsing club tracks alike, reflecting the expansive breadth of ballet today. The night without a doubt belongs to Forsythe, whose premiere of “Playlist (Track 1, 2)”—the first new work he’s mounted on a British company in more than two decades—is a banner event on London’s 2018 culture calendar.
The new piece, an all-male number, is a ten-minute bop to the beats of Peven Everett and Lion Babe —a fluffy, delicious dessert to end the evening with. Decked out in cerulean leggings and mesh jerseys with their names on the back, the 12 dancers bounce and chug, slink and swerve, matching sailing jetés with flashy slides. It’s a roaring display of male virtuosity, their surefootedness complemented by an arch panache plucked straight from the sexy-and-I-know-it playbook. The cast wears this look well, grinning as they handily stretch the movement vocabulary—standard classical steps infused with dance hall attitude—to its breaking point. The dizzying cavalcade of leaps in the second half is a major highlight, as are the turns en masse that follow.
If “Playlist (Track 1, 2)” is the programme’s pudding, Forsythe’s “Approximate Sonata 2016” is the meaty main course. Abstract and punchy, with clean costumes and a simple stage design, it encapsulates the no-frills, dance-focused choreography he’s made his name experimenting with. Here four couples take turns manipulating the classical form across a series of duets, stretching and kneading its contours, their efforts egged on by a throbbing heartbeat of a score. For all their toiling, the vibe remains devastatingly casual; this is a ballet with room for chatter, for ragged panting and second goes at risky moves.
Between them, the couples strike up some delightful repartee. Alina Cojocaru and Joseph Caley are flirty, cheerful, her velvety slides slotting perfectly into the negative space between his struts; Tiffany Hedman and James Streeter, meanwhile, bring an athletic line of attack—a vigorous one-two that sees speedy darts followed up with luxurious slides. Jurgita Dronina’s six o’clock extensions and Precious Adams’ precise, stylish prances are also worth a mention.
Rounding off the programme are Barton’s “Fantastic Beings” and Robbins’ “Cage,” two distinct displays of creaturely aesthetics. The former sees a 20-strong cast assume the froggy crouches and slithery twists of crepuscular reptilia, effluvia glittering on the backdrop behind them. Mason Bates’ accompanying score animates a tense percussive undercurrent with playful honks and trings. Erina Takahashi and Crystal Costa look especially spry in their wriggling, offering quirky bobs of the head, and the men of the cast impress mightily with their animal staredowns and aggressive chugs. Together, however, the dancers appear less like an ensemble than a collection of individuals dancing to their own beat—a lack of solidarity that leaves the piece feeling limp at times and overly long.
“The Cage” presents a steelier kind of beast: carnivorous female insects that ravage the males in their midst. Kitted out in ratty hairdos and wormy leotards, the ladies of ENB stalk and eventually vanquish two interlopers in their matriarchy. Begoña Cao and Dronina slay their respective roles as the queen bee and her apprentice, but it’s hard to get away from the dated feel of this 1951 piece, evident in both its blunt, zig-zagging choreography and intrinsic anxiety over female domination (a prominent theme of mid-century pulp fiction). Surely the women of the company deserve a more modern and compelling vehicle to showcase their talents.