December 5, 2021

English National Ballet at the London Coliseum – Beyond Ballets Russes (Programme 2).

Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes were discussed for a second week by English National Ballet at the Coliseum with their Beyond Ballets Russes season (March 22nd – April 1st).

Opening the 2nd programme was Balanchine’s 1928 masterpiece Apollo. The ballet takes its name from Greek Mythology – and specifically the God (of music and poetry amongst other things) Apollo. Taking place in his abode, Mount Olympus, the deity is joined by three of his female muses. Each one performs for him demonstrating their individual penchant for art, before the final soloist, Terpsichore returns to dance a pas de deux. The work’s apotheosis shows Apollo leading the three muses back to their home, Parnassus, concluding with the now notorious stair-climbing image.

The work (like mythology itself) feels immemorial, and though some 84 years old, still manages to communicate a timeless Classicism. Apollo is probably responsible for giving Balanchine his first major break career-wise, as well as defining the beginning of his life’s work – a trajectory towards the assimilation of Classical form and modernism. The dance movement was created in harmony with the Stravinsky commissioned score, further accentuating this meeting of two creatively profound minds.

Apollo didn’t disappoint on the 2nd night, with the featured cast guarding the epic work well. Zdenek Konvalina as Apollo gave an assured performance that secured his God-like notoriety in both the physical and metaphorical senses, and Daria Klimentová as Terpsichore proved her great physical ease yet again. Anaïs Chalendard took her role to NYC and back with an American sense of attack, and Begoña Cao demonstrated that even abstract ballets can brim with emotion. All in all, a terrific start to the evening.

Next came a work by the only female choreographer involved with the Ballets Russes – Bronislava Nijinska (Nijinsky’s sister). Le Train Bleu, created in 1924 for the Paris Olympics was a sports inspired work; and when considering Nijinska’s movement, Milhaud’s score, Cocteau’s storyline, Picasso’s set and Chanel’s costuming, the work’s creative team reads like a guest list to the party of 1920s Paris. Le beau gosse (Handsome young chap) was the solo shown from the work. Originally created for Anton Dolin, the inclusion of this section took on a deeper relevance, as Dolin was one of the founders of London Festival Ballet, later becoming English National Ballet as we now know it.

The 2012 ‘chap’ was the very popular, and rightly so, Vadim Muntagirov, who has a dream physique – long and lean – topped off with a serious technical brilliance. The demanding role suited him, but perhaps with time a more naturally comic temperament will benefit his performance. Nijinska’s humorous approach to bravado was well supported by Chanel’s minimalist bathing suit, and some rather sore-looking sunburn! Which was so lifelike that the audience (me included) couldn’t fathom out whether the recent heat wave had had its way with Muntagirov, or the markings were there as part of the production. Answers on a postcard please…

The world premiere of Jeux by Wayne Eagling followed. Eagling had originally approached Lady MacMillan to acquire Kenneth’s version of the original (by Nijinsky in 1912) which had been created for the 1978 Herbert Ross film Nijinsky, only to be told that the work had never actually been completed. From this discussion a formative plan was hatched – that Eagling would use the existing MacMillan excerpts as a base structure, and complete a work himself. The programme notes were adamant that Eagling’s offering was not an attempt to relive the Nijinsky concept, but rather a rethinking of it all together, focusing on the role of choreographer as protagonist, and what they encounter during the creative process.

The finished product wasn’t bad, but had some weaknesses, feeling both too long and confusing at times. Eagling had taken the original cast from Jeux (one man and two women) and added a choreographer (Nijinsky), dancer couple (Ballets Russes company members) and Diaghilev character to his realisation. Though the idea of bringing two aspects (created/actual) of the same time period together may have seemed pertinent in theory, in actuality it created a hectic situation, not helped by the erratic Debussy score. That being said, the movement style felt mostly apt, as did the stunning costume designs by Wizzy Shawyer, by which even Coco would’ve been impressed!

The programme closed with a visual-technical feast for the eyes, in Serge Lifar’s Suite en blanc. Originally choreographed for the Paris Opera in 1943 to an Edouard Lalo score, the work features all ranks of a company doing what they do best – be that the female corps de ballet whirling through speed-of-light diagonals, the male ensemble executing impressive allegro enchainment, or the Principal dancers showing off their bold or demure aptitudes. Lifar wasn’t a choreographic maestro in the same league as Balanchine, but Suite manages to hold its own nonetheless.

On the night in question some of the Principal casting seemed dubious. This wasn’t caused by the dancers lacking in technique, but rather in experience and finesse. On the plus side, Begoña Cao as Cigarette brought a nonchalant, diffusive feel to the role, and Erina Takahashi as Flute was the epitome of an accomplished musician, demonstrating both the technical and melodic aspects required – as well as treating the audience to some fouetté turns that didn’t seem to waver from the spot she started them on!

ENB should be praised for their repertoire choices, as well as for the whole Beyond Ballets Russes season. Diverse programmes are infamous for not making money, but they also tend to be ‘food-for-the-soul’ for the dancers, musicians, artistic staff and audience. So here’s hoping that certain broadsheet dance critics who have questioned ENB’s relevance when addressing their supposedly lowbrow, commercial ventures are also the first to jump to their justification when the company offers eight original, interesting and diversely highbrow works performed at such an accomplished level.

Matthew Paluch.

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