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English National Ballet

'L'Arlesienne', 'Le Jeune Homme et la Mort', 'Carmen'

by David Mead and Ana Abad-Carles

July 21, 2011 -- London Coliseum, London, UK

Roland Petit may be a ballet legend in much of Europe, but in Britain his often expressionist work is little known. Top marks, then, to English National Ballet Artistic Director Wayne Eagling for bringing three of his most noted creations to the London stage. This was, though, a season tinged with sadness following Petit’s death just a fortnight before this short season began. But, as Eagling said in a short, moving address before the opening performance, I am sure he was there in spirit.

“L’Arlésienne”, “Le Jeune Homme et la Mort” and “Carmen” are three very different ballets, but works linked by the common theme of sexual desire and death in the form of two suicides and a murder. Add in some of those wonderful, dramatic solos and pas de deux of which Petit was such a master and you have a heady mix. There were probably bound to be issues. Petit’s work does have a particular style, like everyone else’s. They call for a great deal of detail, a particular dramatic interpretation, and a certain technique that was not always apparent. Despite that, and quite rightly, the audience lapped it up.

The least known of the three, “L’Arlésienne”, was the most successful. Inspired by Daudet’s short story, the ballet tells of the continued passion of the young man Frédéri for an unfaithful girl from Arles, a character who, while dominating the ballet, we never meet. It is an obsession that leads to insanity and suicide, despite the efforts of his fiancée Vivette to help him forget.

The claustrophobia of the situation contrasts dramatically with the wide open mountain scenery of the Van Gogh’s Provençal backdrop. With the leading couple framed by the corps in a manner reminiscent of Nijinska’s “Les Noces”, their movement formally structured around lines and circles, and drawing on folkloric elements, the drama was most compelling. Esteban Berlinga gave a passionate performance as the bridegroom, always attempting to break away, his anguish at being unable to escape his memories there for all to see. Erina Takahashi was most touching as the pure and innocent bride to be, always trying to calm and soothe his pain, often by cradling his head, only for him to disappear once again into his own mixed-up world in a blue of turns and jetés.

“Le Jeune Homme et la Mort” is probably best known by many from the opening minutes of the 1985 movie “White Nights”, with Mikhail Baryshnikov in the lead role. It may be only fifteen minutes long, but it remains a wonderful dance drama that sees a woman tormenting her young lover, eventually driving him to hang himself in a final desperate attempt to free himself from his situation.

Despite the presence of the femme fatale, the ballet is essentially a long solo for the man, danced here by Yonah Acosta, nephew of Carlos. He was certainly full of confidence and displayed all the necessary explosive athleticism as he leapt and spun around the tables and chairs of his Parisian garret. Yet the piece lacked the force it should have. There was little sense that anything was real or coming from inside. There was little sense of anguish, despair or dramatic tension. His final suicide was rather a damp squib. It would have been interesting to see what Ivan Vasiliev, one of the last to work on the role with Petit himself, made of it the following evening. Anäis Chalendard in her lemon dress and black gloves was a powerful presence as Death, her eyes piercingly cruel. Missing though was much in the way of connection with her prey.

Special mention here for Georges Wakhevitch’s artist’s workshop that finally opens up to reveal the rooftops of Paris at night, complete with Eiffel Tower and flashing Citroën sign. It remains a masterpiece of ballet design.

“Carmen” is better known to British audiences, having been premiered in London in 1949, and danced here several times since. With its vivid story and score, it remains one of Petit’s more popular works. In many ways, though, it was the least satisfactory ballet of the evening. Neither Begoña Cao nor Fabian Reimar showed the passion or depth needed for the characters. Cao played Carmen as a whore and the Reimar’s Don José was rather bland. Alongside that, James Streeter seemed determined to depict Escamillo as a toreador stereotype, accentuating all the clownish aspects. As is often the way, these roles have a much stronger impact when played with a serious face. The choreography is certainly clear enough.

As ever, the issues come back to style. Like any other, Petit’s requires time to assimilate. It does not come quickly. The legs are crucial and, while Cao has very long legs that she puts to great use, they are not sharp enough for Petit’s Carmen. His constant switching from en dehors to en dedans that is part of the French school is alien to ENB’s dancers and it shows. I wonder if those of the old English school with their strong feet and legs would have been better at this choreography than the present dancers who have long extensions but are not strong enough in their use.

Plenty of reservations, but Eagling should not be discouraged. This was one of the most exciting mixed programmes to be put on in London by a major company in years. More of the same, please!

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