★★★★ SONG OF THE EARTH / LA SYLPHIDE, ENB Sincerity and charm in a rewarding double bill
The unifying theme of this new Coliseum double bill is death, but don’t let that put you off. Kenneth MacMillan’s Song of the Earth and August Bournonville’s La Sylphide may seem like odd bedfellows, but both are a great deal more uplifting than their plot summaries might suggest, and in the hands of English National Ballet the evening is joyous, even life-affirming.
MacMillan’s Song of the Earth was acquired by the company for its part in the national MacMillan anniversary celebrations last October, and they look at home in it already. Song’s combination of sincerity and levity is a natural fit for the company with its youthful dancers and the glow of purpose and optimism that animates them under Tamara Rojo’s leadership. Freshness fairly reeks from Fernando Carratalá Coloma, who has only just joined the company as an Artist but performed the Messenger of Death on opening night (in place of an injured Aaron Robison) with impressive vigour and precision. A fitting counterpoint to Coloma’s freshness is Rojo herself as the Woman, bringing her worlds of age and experience to bear in playing a character who must confront death. Rojo’s wide, solemn eyes seem to be fixed on a horizon beyond our sight and her every move is deliberate and meditative; where the capers of the supporting dancers give the piece its song, she is its connection to the earth.
There is a certain thematic synergy - young love, the joy of nature, the place of death in all life
Completing the central trio (pictured below) was Joseph Caley as the Man. Caley, who recently joined the company as a principal from Birmingham Royal Ballet, is lithe and tidy, but any attempt at characterisation goes out of the window when he partners Rojo, his face stamped instead with the frantic concentration of a new boy trying desperately not to drop his boss in front of 2,000 onlookers. He could take lessons in tender partnering from James Streeter, whose pas de deux with Tiffany Hedman positively shimmered with happiness; a beautifully tender evocation of young love.That balancing of joie de vivre with a more meditative, resigned mood is one of the particular joys of Song of the Earth, present in the Mahler score (and nicely presented last night in the contrast between Samuel Sakker’s passionate tenor and Rhonda Browne’s serene contralto) and perfectly captured in MacMillan’s choreography. The Sixth Song sees the culmination and unification of both elements, with its central triadic relationship of Man, Woman, Death eventually resolving into the equal light of eternity, and Rojo and company made that as heart-stopping as I’ve ever seen it.The performance of La Sylphide that follows Song is just as shot through with ENB’s now trademark sincerity and charm. Isaac Hernández makes James a wide-eyed hero who lets himself get tempted away from his wedding almost through heedlessness, like a child so intent on chasing butterflies that it doesn’t see a chasm yawning before its feet. Jurgita Dronina’s Sylph is so charming one can understand his fascination: light on her feet and wreathed in smiles, she tempts him with a piquant knowing innocence, fluttering here and there before his disbelieving eyes in all too potent contrast to the quotidien charms of Effy, his sweet, sensible betrothed (Anjuli Hudson).
The Bournonville style of La Sylphide is the bel canto of ballet; it may not look like fireworks compared to Don Quixote but it’s still bloody hard. Dronina’s fleet, precise footwork and perfectly inclined head are a joy to a ballet geek’s heart, while her mime should be a joy to everyone, not only for its entirely believable emotion, but for the tiny details that make her a sylph through and through (my favourite was when, having caught an imaginary moth in Act II, her cupped hands quivered almost unconsciously as if really tickled by a struggling insect). (Pictured below right: Dronina as the Sylph)
The simple, mechanical stage-trickery that makes the sylph “magically” appear and disappear in Mikael Melbye’s plain but evocative Scots baronial set is intensely satisfying: in these days of limitless digital possibility it’s somehow all the more pleasurable to see an actor whisked up a chimney by invisible, but clearly human, means. The witch trickery of the plot, with Madge (Jane Haworth, satisfyingly hammy) cursing and engineering the downfall of poor James, is rather heavy-handed; the corps of sylphs, impeccably together in the Romantic style (props to both dancers and coaches) are a much more effective enchantment. One sympathises with James’s shock when first confronted with the sylphs en masse: they may not be as terrifying as Giselle’s wilis, but they are quite fey enough to evoke the uncanny.
With its shortbread-tin Scottish setting and rather ordinary human characters, Sylphide can seen like a poor cousin to the exquisite tragedy of Giselle, but done well, as it is by ENB, it is a treasure of a ballet, not only for its historical importance – there’s no Giselle without Sylphide, after all, and the perfect preservation of its Romantic choreography since 1836 is remarkable – but also as a highly effective fairy tale. Where the later ballet meditates discomfortingly on femininity and power, the earlier one presents a tug-of-war between nature and society that is the quintessential stuff of folklore, and in a way much less reassuring. Giselle, after all, ends with reconciliation of a kind, and a live if chastened hero; in Sylphide the hapless James will not be rescued from the consequences of his transgression on natural and social norms.
It is undeniably an odd pairing, this Romantic gem and MacMillan's unmistakably 20th century elegy, but it works. Partly because there is a certain thematic synergy between the two – young love, the joy of nature, the place of death in all life – but mostly because ENB are totally dedicated to bringing out the emotional truth of both pieces, as well as to music and dancing of the highest standard. It may not be an obvious night at the ballet, but it's all the more rewarding for it.