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Sparkles, Scraps and Spandex

Overheard after the curtain drop on “Theme and Variations,” the opener of English National Ballet’s latest mixed bill: “Well, it was very Balanchine!” Love, like or loathe his neoclassical creations, George Balanchine knew the sticking points of a signature style. Beating footwork, silky port de bras, sharp lines and grand processionals—they’re all showcased here, and the ENB crew does an admirable job tackling their intricacies, Emma Hawes in particular, who floats to the front as our leading lady, bringing a flush of luxury to supple penchés and arabesques. She glows in pearly white, the corps a sherbet swirl of peach and lemonade, tutus bobbing as they pinwheel to a Tchaikovsky score.

Performance

English National Ballet: “Theme and Variations” / “Les Noces” / “Four Songs”

Place

Sadler’s Wells, London, UK, September, 21 2023

Words

Sara Veale

Emma Hawes and Aitor Arrieta in “Theme and Variations” by George Balanchine. Photograph by Laurent Liotardo

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Precious Adams also turns heads, particularly in the pas de quatre, which she greets with sprightly precision, nailing the musicality of Balanchine’s choreography. Aitor Arrieta is less crisp but brings a feline dexterity to his springing duets with Hawes, achieving agile lift-off with ever-so-soft landings. While the principal variations are splendid, the ensemble delivers the highest notes, the peaches and the lemons criss-crossing the stage on the diagonal, waltzing two-by-two in a bracing oom-pah-pah.

It's hard to imagine a bigger gear shift than “Les Noces,” a new commission from American choreographer Andrea Miller. Wrenching drama abounds in this narrative ballet, which reworks Bronislava Nijinska’s 1923 triumph into a sequel to “The Rite of Spring,” the 1913 masterwork from Nijinska’s brother, Vaslav Nijinsky. Instead of the peasant wedding Stravinsky imagined when he wrote his ballet-cantata, Miller envisions a community unravelling in the aftermath of a sacrificial death—a story that’s hard to follow, even with the programme notes helping us along. The meat is in the imagery, not the plot, which makes for mixed viewing.

English National Ballet in Andrea Miller's “Les Noces” Photograph by Laurent-Liotardo

Phyllida Barlow’s striking set gives Pina Bausch-like whiffs of violence, with piles of rags heaped to resemble entrails, while the Opera Holland Park Chorus assembles in a formidable line behind the dancers, adding another layer of intensity. Helmed by Alice Bellini, playing the Chosen One’s anguished mother, the ENB cast sways, stuffers and scissor-leaps, inky black tarps in hand. Bellini darts between frailty and strength, throwing herself to the ground and, on one occasion, through a hole in Barlow’s bleachers, while her daughter (a role confusingly shared by Breanna Ford and Francesca Velicu) haunts the periphery, thrusting her wrists forward like a victim of the stigmata. Together they abstract the hazards of grief, brutality and ritualism across a string of oblique scenes, some sharper than others. It’s an uneven structure, but they confront the challenge with bracing self-possession. 

English National Ballet in “Four Last Songs” by David Dawson. Photograph by Laurent Liotardo

The programme—the first from ENB’s new artistic director, Aaron S. Watkins—concludes with another world premiere, this one from David Dawson, who treats us to more on-stage music in “Four Last Songs,” set to a soaring song cycle from Richard Strauss. A serene, sweeping display of contemporary ballet, with nude leotards that emphasise every dip and stretch, the piece has a 1970s, late-stage John Cranko feel. There’s a sculptural quality to the dancing, as if each move has been carved from another, an aesthetic shored up with statuesque tableaux and Adonis-like poses from the men. The 12-strong cast makes elastic work of it, especially Erina Takahashi, whose extensions are never struck but unfurled, her leg stretching to its furthest reach as soprano Madeleine Pierard sings stage left. It’s a comfortable fit for the company—something beautiful to rise to without being overly taxing.

Sara Veale


Sara Veale is a London-based writer and editor. She's written about dance for the Observer, the Spectator, DanceTabs, Auditorium Magazine, Exeunt and more. Her first book, Untamed: The Radical Women of Modern Dance, will be published in 2024.

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