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English National Ballet: Beyond Ballet Russes I

'Firebird', 'L'apres midi d'un faun', 'Faun(e), 'Rite of Spring'

by David Mead

March 20, 2012-- London Coliseum, London, UK

English National Ballet has long been known for its popular productions of the classics, but under the leadership of Wayne Eagling, London audiences at least have been treated to some innovative and exciting mixed programmes often featuring new or little seen works. Last week’s first programme in their Beyond Ballets Russes season was a classic example and one the Coliseum audience lapped up.

New versions of “Firebird” are almost as rare as the mythical beast. Rather sensibly, and it has to be said rather bravely, young choreographer George Williamson decided to abandon pretty much everything from the well-known Fokine ballet save Stravinsky’s score, preferring to go for something completely new.

The programme notes referred to humankind thinking it can control nature as it pushes the world’s resources and environment to the limit. I assume that the Firebird represents nature, and that the plucking of her feathers by the Lead Celebrity and Army Captain is supposed to reflect the rape of the natural world by man. Later, and in a very dramatic and impressive moment, nature is finally devoured by the hoard as the she leaps into a mass of bodies, before, and in a sign of hope, she reappears, reborn and held high above the throng as the curtain falls. It has to be said, though, that such meaning gets lost almost immediately and would be nigh on impossible to decipher if it wasn’t for the programme.

Williamson’s “Firebird” is, though, a more than watchable ballet. His neo-classical choreography fits very neatly with Stravinsky’s score, and there is plenty of interest. His handling of groups of dancers is impressive, although Ksenia Ovsyanick’s Firebird gets all the best steps. A special mention too for David Bamber’s retro, comic-book, sci-fi designs that place proceedings at some indeterminate date in the future. Williamson only graduated from the ENB School in 2010, and while “Firebird” has its issues, there’s more than enough here to make you want to see more of his work.

Nijinksy’s “L’Après-midi d’un Faun” was most disappointing. Dmitri Gruzdyev in particular struggled to get to grips with the highly stylised choreography, looking rather uptight and all together too princely; indeed anything but an adolescent coming to terms with his sexual desires. Mind you, it was all so gloomily lit, it’s a wonder he saw Elena Glurdjidze and the other nymphs anyway.

Far more pleasing was David Dawson’s “Faun(e)”, performed to a piano version of the same score played live on stage, and here danced by two men, although as the title suggests, it can also be danced to two women. An older man dances to the music; steps, it seems, coming from nowhere but his own imagination. He is joined by a younger man, who he leads, and who eventually takes on the lead role as the former slips into the background. It is a total contrast to the Nijinsky: a stripped back stage, well-lit, simply costumed, and full of flowing, sinuous dance that comes with such ease.

The programme closed with Kenneth MacMillan’s “The Rite of Spring”, with new designs by Kinder Aggugini. Like Williamson’s “Firebird” it had a rather futuristic feel about it, helped along by the dancers black costumes with deep red blocks that make them look like an alien army, each with their lungs transposed to the outside of their bodies. The corps were quite stunning, dancing with urgency and a great sense of togetherness. Even when all 48 of them were doing the same thing it was impossible to spot a single one even half a second out of step. But it is the diminutive Erina Takahashi as the Chosen One who sticks in the memory most, he tiny body shaking with intensity, and probably a certain amount of exhaustion, as she pushes to her inevitable end.

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