Ecstasy and Death, English National Ballet, London Coliseum | Dance reviews, news & interviews
Ecstasy and Death, English National Ballet, London Coliseum
A three-course evening out at the ballet with a phenomenal star at its heart
Is it death that makes us go back to the ballet? The one artform where it is so glorified, so exquisitely reimagined as an experience of regret, hope, ecstasy or bleakest resignation that we will go to drink it in again and again, to preview our own? Maybe that’s it. Opera is about living in the threat of death (all those tubercular arias and declarations from the heart of bonfires). Theatre is all about living, imperfectly. But in ballet, life itself is only a holding position - it exists in a realm that looks forward, erotically and existentially, to death, it forecasts the run-up to death as something not accidental or random, but willed, in which emotions and sexual urges achieve their highest pitch.
These gloomy, exciting thoughts crowd in for English National Ballet’s brief, stimulating mixed programme entitled Ecstasy and Death at the London Coliseum, in the midst of a week that is sorely testing the ballet pound with fantasies of death. The National Ballet of Canada’s Romeo and Juliet at Sadler’s Wells - pfff. Tonight the Royal Ballet’s magnificently gruesome Mayerling, for those with strong stomachs. But ENB has a three-course banquet for all tastes, a nice body-beautiful starter, a nerd’s-guide-to-classical-ballet finisher - and in between, probably the man of the year, Nicolas Le Riche in Roland Petit’s winey Le Jeune homme et la mort.
Petit was France’s most exciting choreographer for decades, but was too French, too sexy, too philosophique, to become a favoured guest in British companies. One of his last acts before his death two years ago was to permit ENB to acquire his ballet, which is an eyecatching vehicle with only two seats.
He is homme incarnate, tall, intellectual, charismatic, electrically quick and stupendously hot
It’s understandable that Tamara Rojo, in launching her ENB directorship, brazenly confessed that she persuaded Paris Opera Ballet’s Le Riche to dance the work with her as a present to herself. It doesn't matter that Paris’s most exciting star for the past 20 years is 41 now - in his one-shouldered denim dungarees he is homme incarnate, tall, intellectual, charismatic, electrically quick and stupendously hot as the eponymous young man lounging about in his garret waiting for someone (probably a girl) to turn up.
He smokes, he checks his watch, he idles about in working time - he is every inch the scrounger on benefits. But this is Forties Paris, so the girl who knocks at the door is not a benefits inspector but Death. She’s a nasty piece of work, as Tamara Rojo dances her, in a deceptively sunny yellow dress, and sinister black gloves. In the Nureyev-Jeanmaire film version Bach's Passacaglia is heard on the organ, with reproachful religious associations - Respighi's soupy orchestration for the live performance drowns the old Catholic guilt in purple musical melodrama.
But it is still bonza theatre. Boy, did Petit know how to grab an audience. The young man veers between electrifying leaps and the freeze of a rabbit in headlights, as Death runs her gloved hands lasciviously over his back. Georges Wakhévitch's grand set unfolds like an explosion at the end, producing the Paris skyline like a rabbit out of a hat. Le Riche takes it all with mesmerising seriousness, even its repetitiousness. He gradually blocks the remorseless femme fatale out of his glazing vision and when he hangs himself it is because some opaque existential loss within him has knocked the support out of his ability to live. Then you collect yourself: come on, it’s French, it’s théâtre, it’s super-mélodrame.
Rojo overplayed the cartoon seductress, I thought; Jeanmaire was smiling, ambivalent, part-mother-part-killer in those early outings, and more lethally ambiguous.
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