sat 19/01/2019

Modern Masters, English National Ballet, Sadler's Wells | reviews, news & interviews

Modern Masters, English National Ballet, Sadler's Wells

Modern Masters, English National Ballet, Sadler's Wells

Company stake their claim to Kylián, Neumeier and Forsythe with style

Classy choreography in classy underwear: Ksenia Ovsyanick and James Forbat © ASH

Reviews of English National Ballet in which I rave about what Tamara Rojo is doing for the company are getting to be the norm round here. This one is no exception, and I'm not even going to apologise for it.  Last night was the opening of Modern Masters, an ambitious new bill in which the company more than prove they're up to handling the big beasts of late twentieth-century choreography. It took place not at the Coliseum, but at Sadler's Wells, the home of exciting contemporary dance programming in London, and a new partner venue for ENB in what looks like a very savvy deal for both parties. And if their collaborative leads to more evenings like this one, it's going to be a pretty sweet deal for audiences too.

Jiří Kylián's 1991 Petite Mort is an early expositor of a trend I find tiresome in contemporary ballet, namely lots of crotch flashing while wearing nude underwear. But Kylián's fluid choreography and Joke Visser's elegant satin costumes make for an overall effect far more refined than later imitators managed, and Petite Mort as a whole looks remarkably fresh and graceful, at least in ENB's hands. It's a soundless, velvety interpretation in dance of the slow movements of two Mozart piano concertos (Nos. 23 & 21, rather prosaically played by Chris Swithinbank and the English National Ballet Philharmonic).

Yes, there's some naffing around with swords and dresses on wheels, which walks a line between funny and dated kitsch, but I still think Kylián's musical, flowing choreography more than justifies this piece's status as a modern classic. The refined ladies of ENB keep it clean, finding the work's undoubted sexiness not in the graphic grappling positions, but in the details - a quick flutter of hands or feet during a lift. On the whole, I think it could have done with slightly more of the stage-grabbing air of danger brought by Tamara Rojo, when she appeared for her pas de deux with megastar charisma turned up to maximum, but it's still a smart, swift, little piece, which ends sharply well before you've had a chance to tire of it (yes, you can insert your own sex joke here).

ENB rise to the technical challenge admirably, considering this high-speed, high-precision, high-impact style hasn't been asked of them much in recent yearsJohn Neumeier's Spring and Fall is another 90s revival, in fact originating in the very same year as Petite Mort, though the final version is from 1995. And don't you just know it from the costumes? Spaghetti-strap viscose dresses over bodysuits for the girls and MC Hammer pants for the bare-chested boys, all in purest boy-band white. 90s fashion aside (and actually the designs are lovely), Spring and Fall is a very smart acquisition for ENB, whose lyrical, narrative, classical style it suits down to the ground. Essentially a pastoral ballet without plot, it trips along to the merry theme and variation gurgling of Dvořak's Serenade for Strings (again served up no more than competently by the house band and its rather dull string sound) and affords principals Alina Cojocaru and Alejandro Virelles ample opportunity to demonstrate their matching gift for engaging characterisation. 

It's all as sweet and capersome as the cherub- and centaur-stuffed Beethoven 6 sequence in Disney's Fantasia - and like that sequence, is much at its best when being quirky and comic, rather than romantic.Neumeier's pas de deux I found bland, for all Cojocaru (a Neumeier favourite who regularly guests for him at Hamburg Ballet) and Virelles were smiling and emoting fit to bust, but the athletic ensemble sequences for men, with daffy chest bumps and bum wiggling are excellent, as is the swaggering first appearance of the ladies, led by Cojocaru wearing an uncommonly and delightfully saucy expression. It was a touch too long for my liking - the Dvořak, though ever so catchy, gets a bit samey after a while - but I would be quite happy to see this roll round regularly in the company's repertory.

One of the surest signs that a performance deserves an enthusiastic write-up is that it leaves you humming its tunes and wanting to dance its steps on the way home.  With classical ballet it's not too dangerous to give in to the urge and allow yourself a few discreet wrist twiddles, but with William Forsythe's In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated, the last piece on the Modern Masters bill, watch out! This 1987 classic is so thumpingly badass, so saturated with in-your-face bravura, that channelling its spirit will make you want to vogue across four lanes of traffic - or at least bop your head in a violent manner disturbing to other commuters.  I mean, we're talking about a piece whose score (by Thom Willems) is basically just headbanging blasts of synth at max volume, and whose only set decoration is a pair of gold acorns, dangling brazenly above the stage like a big pair of cojones.

Bringing this into the company's repertory shows Tamara Rojo has cojones of her own. Forsythe always presents a fiendish technical challenge, and In the Middle especially so, having been made on an incredibly talented group of young dancers at the Paris Opéra bqck in the day, including Sylvie Guillem. On the whole, ENB rise to it admirably, considering this high-speed, high-precision, high-impact style hasn't been asked of them much in recent years.  Having Cojocaru available to front is an advantage of course, since she's got all the technical capacity to do it with confidence, and good grief what a pleasure it is to see her and Virelles attacking Forsythe's meaty, intelligent pas de deux after the insipid duetting of Spring and Fall. I'd guess Forsythe isn't actually Cojocaru's favourite though: we only saw intermittent flashes from her of the kind of sizzling attitude the piece demands, and which gutsy soubrette types Crystal Costa and Barry Drummond displayed in abundance. 

I took a friend who loves music but has been suspicious of classical ballet due to bad Nutcracker-style experiences and he was blown away. Even I, having managed not to do myself a Forsythe-induced injury on the way home, checked my diary to see if I could squeeze in a return visit this week. This is modern ballet at its peak, presented by a great company in a great venue.  Tickets are still available and they aren't even expensive. Seriously, this one is not to be missed.

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