English national ballet

Striking but not altogether successful: ENB’s Our Voices reviewed

Aaron S. Watkin, an affable bearded Canadian, is the new artistic director of English National Ballet. He arrives from Dresden, where he ran a similarly scaled company comfortably subsidised by public funds. Doubtless, he finds what the Arts Council gives ENB meagre to the point of stingy. One may wonder, therefore, what the attraction is, but he certainly inherits from Tamara Rojo a solid organisation and a fine body of dancers, particularly strong on the male side. His inaugural piece of programming is striking but not altogether successful. It starts gloriously with Balanchine’s Theme and Variations, an essay in his grand tsarist style, set to some noble music by Tchaikovsky,

A fitting swansong from Tamara Rojo: The Forsythe Evening reviewed

One wouldn’t want to be on the wrong side of Tamara Rojo. The most fearsome figure on the British dance scene since the authoritarian reign of Ninette ‘Madam’ de Valois, she has capped a brilliant international career as a prima ballerina with a formidable decade as artistic director of English National Ballet (as well as the award of a PhD, the patented invention of an anti-bunion device and the birth of her first child at the age of 46). She is now about to move on with her dancer husband Isaac Hernandez, 16 years her junior, to a similar position in San Francisco. The Bay Area doesn’t know what a

Rojo’s choreographic updating is a visual feast: English National Ballet’s Raymonda reviewed

Velvet waistcoats, technicolour tulle and some very spangly harem pants — English National Ballet’s atelier must have been mighty busy prepping for Raymonda, Tamara Rojo’s lavish new reboot of Marius Petipa’s 1898 ballet. Antony McDonald’s costumes shimmer as vibrantly as his stage design, and Rojo’s choreographic treatment is its own visual feast, packed with pinwheeling set pieces that repackage Petipa’s fearsome technique with their own pizazz. I can’t say the narrative is quite so electric, even with its conscientious redraft, which excises the xenophobia of the original scenario, along with its damsel-in-distress storyline, and trades the 13th century for the 19th, with the Crusades swapped for the Crimean War. In

The Nutcracker wasn’t always considered quite such a box of delights

E.T.A. Hoffmann’s tale of a young man turned into a novelty kitchen gadget by an evil rodent isn’t obvious dance material, and yet here we are, up to our plastic tiaras in sugar plums. Four Nutcrackers in London alone and an average of 200 productions, amateur and professional, across the Atlantic. How? Why? Sharp pens greeted the 1892 St Petersburg première — ‘it’s a pity that so much fine music is expended on nonsense’ — and within two decades it was little more than a box of delights to be raided by directors and choreographers, blithely borrowing anything they fancied from Lev Ivanov’s choreography or Tchaikovsky’s ravishing, bittersweet score, regardless

At last some genuine gala material: Royal Ballet’s Balanchine and Robbins reviewed

The OED defines ‘gala’ as ‘a festive occasion’. In the ballet world this usually translates as a handful of stars, a mile of tulle and more triple fouettés than you can shake a stick at. Most balletgoers could put a half-decent programme together in their sleep: a firecracker duet (Swan, black), the odd solo party piece (Swan, dying), a dash of romance (Romeo, Manon) and the dear old Don Q. pas de deux. After a year being drip-fed small-screen ballet, the prospect of a little bling and bravura generated a buzz of excitement around Dame Darcey Bussell’s charity gala. The Hall (Albert) was hired, sponsors were found, eight major companies

Crystal Pite tore the house down: Royal Ballet’s 21st-Century Choreographers reviewed

The choreographers called on to get the nation’s dancers back on to the stage have as much to say about the state of our times as they do about art. Many of the works were created during the pandemic. English National Ballet’s Reunion started life as a series of dance films that were streamed last winter; with the opening of theatres, ENB’s artistic director Tamara Rojo asked the choreographers to adapt them for live staging. Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s Laid in Earth was the most moving; a portrait of man coming to terms with impending death, whether his own or his lover’s. To a live performance of ‘Dido’s Lament’, four dancers

Gripping – if you skip the non-stop Yentobbing: Dancing Nation reviewed

Thank God for the fast-forward button. Sadler’s Wells had planned a tentative return to live performance last month but the renewed lockdown forced a rethink and the programme was niftily reconfigured for the small screen. The result, Dancing Nation, is a generous serving of old, new and borrowed work from 15 UK dance-makers. Unfortunately the BBC’s three hour-long iPlayer films pad out the dance content with interviews and mission statements plus non-stop Yentobbing from the inevitable talking head. Brenda Emmanus, one-time frontwoman of BBC’s The Clothes Show, speaks fluent presenterese, emphasising every other word and greeting each number with kindergarten delight: ‘What a treat we have for you!… Another thought-provoking,

Electrifying and strange

‘Where was the Kahlo brow?’ asked my guest in the first interval of English National Ballet’s She Persisted, a triple bill celebrating female choreographers. She was right: Frida had been plucked. It was an odd decision for a production that does not otherwise shy from ugliness. Broken Wings, a ballet inspired by the life of Frida Kahlo by Belgian-Colombian choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, was first performed in 2016 and is revived here in a carnival of Tehuana skirts, antler bonnets and capering day-of-the-dead skeletons. The surrealist André Breton likened Kahlo’s art to ‘a ribbon around a bomb’ and that is Katja Khaniukova’s Kahlo: silken and explosive. We see her first

The Glums in tights

If you like the BBC’s Les Misérables, you’ll love English National Ballet’s Manon. Manon, in Kenneth MacMillan’s telling, is The Glums in tights. Alina Cojocaru dances Manon, an 18th-century courtesan in Paris, pimped by her brother Lescaut (Jeffrey Cirio). She falls for Des Grieux (Joseph Caley), young, handsome, penniless, love’s young dream, and is later ensnared by the older, richer, crueller Monsieur GM. Cojocaru is sublime. ‘That’s her!’ whispered my neighbour in the stalls as Manon fluttered through the crowd at the inn. With Des Grieux, Cojocaru is sweet and expressive, tender and teasing. As Monsieur’s mistress, in diamonds and furs, she dances with quiet power and cold command. In

Stranger danger

Like it or not, provincial ballet audiences love a story they can hum and any director planning to tour a swan-light, sugar plum-free menu has always done so at their peril. Tchaikovsky isn’t compulsory: a really well-known story, however undanceable, can usually do decent business (Northern Ballet’s extremely silly Three Musketeers is a reliable granny-magnet). But less familiar titles can be box-office poison — as English National Ballet is forever discovering. When the former Royal Ballet star Tamara Rojo took over in 2012, she immediately set about breaking down the vanilla tastes of ENB’s regional fanbase with a lavish new production of Le Corsaire. The 1856 pirates-and-slave-girls romp had everything

Her big, fat Highland wedding

Gurn loves Effy, Effy is engaged to James but James is away with the fairies: a recipe for love tragedy. Tamara Rojo’s English National Ballet hasn’t danced August Bournonville’s La Sylphide since 1989 (before most of today’s dancers were born or thought of). The easy elevation and unshowy brilliance of the Danish style do not come naturally to them but their accents have improved since the dispiriting première in Milton Keynes last October. The character ensembles look perkier although the garish tartan choices make poor Effy’s big, fat Highland wedding look like a lock-in at a Royal Mile souvenir shop. The sylph’s 18 sisters were unfailingly tidy but the sense

Yes, he Khan

Giselle endures in the collective imagination as a charming, sorrowful, supernatural love story. Premièred in Paris in 1841, this keystone romantic ballet concerns a peasant girl whose trust in a disguised nobleman destroys her fragile mind and heart. Little wonder, given the ballet’s mixture of sunniness, deception, spooky woe and redemption, that it retains a timeless grip or that the title role has become the ballerina equivalent of Hamlet. English National Ballet will be at the London Coliseum in January performing Mary Skeaping’s Giselle, a chilling and historically accurate version originally mounted by the company in 1971. But first comes Akram Khan’s brand new take, another savvy commission by ENB’s

The bitchy world of ballet

Memoirs of old men, baldly, tend to be tricky. Sir Peter Wright, one of the founding pillars of the British ballet establishment, is now 90, and a charmingly chatty man; but I’ve personally never found him reluctant to get to the point when asked. As inaugural director of Birmingham Royal Ballet, director of Sadler’s Wells Ballet and associate director of the Royal Ballet, he has spent more than half a century inside the amazing British ballet story. I had high expectations of these copious memoirs. So it’s a great pity that his amanuensis, Paul Arrowsmith, has essentially switched on the tape recorder and let memories pour, failing to check or

Swan upping

Was Tamara Rojo, when she danced Swan Lake last Saturday at the Albert Hall, thinking as she shaped each phrase, ‘This will be the last time I dance this …and this …and this’? I wonder. She told me a few years back that she had a five-year diary to cover the rest of her dancing career, a diary ending in 2016. Akram Khan’s modern Giselle this autumn will be a Rojo role, but if at 42 she was privately saying farewell to her classical career on Saturday, she did it with the spectacular and refined artistry the public has come to expect. A woman sitting next to me complained that

On the money

The Big Short is a drama about the American financial collapse of 2008. It talks you through sub-prime mortgages, tranches, credit-default swaps, mortgage-backed securities, collateralized debt obligations …and, yes, I just bored myself to tears typing that list. I had to prop my eyes open with matchsticks typing that list. I would even propose that I was more bored typing that list than I’ve ever been in my whole life, which is saying something, as I saw Monuments Men. And, previously, I would have proposed that there is no way you could ever make any of the above fascinating or compelling or sexy, let alone scathingly funny. But The Big

I’m having trouble finding an anti-woman conspiracy in dance

I’m bemused by the outburst of claims that female choreographers are under-represented, held back, or discouraged by ‘institutionalised sexism’ from unveiling their contributions to the richness of British dance. Only a fortnight ago I was thinking about what to write for my first 2016 piece, and this was the very question on my lips. Why was English National Ballet doing a special all-women choreography programme in 2016 as a protest statement when so many of the best things made in dance last year and the previous year were by female choreographers? But I decided I’d keep that powder dry until ENB come to the stage. However, this weekend Luke Jennings,

Fighting talk | 17 September 2015

If there’s one thing scarcer than hen’s teeth in serious choreography nowadays, it’s a light heart. When was the last time we had something jolly created in the artform that brought us La Fille mal gardée, Coppélia and Les biches? Still, the first week of the start of the dance year was all good stuff, if sombre (and Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo are over from New York at the Peacock right now, thank heavens). English National Ballet’s Lest We Forget bill of new ballets was made last year for the start of the first world war centenary, but deserved repeating as a demonstration of serious ballets by accomplished

50 shades of beige: English National Ballet’s Modern Masters at Sadler’s Wells, reviewed

My moment of the week was stumbling into the shocking, fantastical Cabinet of Curiosities in the Alexander McQueen show at the V&A. On the walls were tier upon tier of dresses, shoes and headdresses, feathered, leathered, beaded, painted, razored, or tenderly embroidered with a fairy needle. Rotating at the centre of the room was the Spray Paint Dress that a dazed Shalom Harlow wore while robots ejaculated paint over her in 1998. What could be more sinisterly resonant of classical ballet’s erotic world? McQueen made his one and only ballet working with Sylvie Guillem 18 months before his suicide — remember her as the cross-gender Chevalier d’Eon in Eonnagata? But

What happened to virtuosity in dance?

I was watching the Cirque du Soleil’s Kooza at the Royal Albert Hall last week, thinking how much base, uncomplicated enjoyment can be had away from dance. Such relief to watch contortionists, trapezists, high-wire cyclists and crazed men skipping on the Wheel of Death, such relief just to be amazed. If they didn’t make my palms pour sweat with fear, my jaw drop with disbelief, I’d feel dreadfully let down. I wonder what happened to being amazed in dance. I was talking with a friend last week about the lack of amazement offered by the bulk of ballerinas in current productions of the 19th-century warhorses Don Quixote (Royal Ballet) and Swan

ENB’s Swan Lake: the rights and wrongs of ballet thighs

There’s been heated disagreement over the past week about what’s right and wrong. Is the rocket-propelled ex-Bolshoi enfant terrible Ivan Vasiliev ‘right’ for Swan Lake? Is English National Ballet right to accept such huge thighs in this of all classics, when the sizeist cohorts of the Russian establishment always said nyet to the sturdy, forceful Belarussian? That peculiar balletic categorisation ‘emploi’ has been invoked even by British critics. Emploi means ‘rightness’ as a ‘type’ for a role. Emploi was what drove Mikhail Baryshnikov, another short man condemned at home by his build to demi-caractère parts, to quit Russia and its narrowmindedness and redefine himself as danseur noble in the West.