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English National Ballet: Beyond Ballet Russes II

'Apollo', 'Jeux', 'Le train bleu', 'Suite en blanc'

by David Mead

March 28, 2012-- London Coliseum, London, UK

There are not too many ballets that you sit and watch in awe, but Balanchine’s “Apollo” is definitely one such, especially when it is danced so near-perfectly as by English National Ballet at the Coliseum. Zdenek Konvalina was a fine and commanding Apollo. The three muses were all playful in their own way. Daria Klimentova as Terpsichore just about took the honours, not even put off by an errant should strap that slowly inched its way down her arm, but it was a close-run thing. Anaïs Chalendard as Polyhymnia and Begoña Cao as Calliope were equally sublime. When together they danced as perfectly as I think I’ve ever seen, every arabesque at exactly the same height, every head inclined to exactly same degree, every arm at the precisely same angle and extension. It was magical indeed.

After that, I worried for Wayne Eagling’s new take on “Jeux”. He had wanted to do MacMillan’s unfinished version, but with only a fragment surviving, that was impossible. Instead he has reimagined Nijinsky’s 1913 original for Diaghilev. Eagling’s ballet is about a choreographer, seemingly lost for ideas, who gets inspiration from an errant tennis ball. In his imagination he becomes involved in the game along with some passers-by. The original, of course, featured a game of tennis.

It is all faintly romantic and dreamy. People lean on and hang around the piano as they would a park bench. Some of the early gesture and side-on poses hark back to Nijinsky, although later it gets rather more conventional. One pas de trois seems to make reference to “Apollo”; another nice link. At the end a black-coated, cane-carrying, bowler hated man appears, looking for all the world like an undertaker. He tosses the ball to the choreographer. When he turns to the audience we realise it is, of course, Diaghilev.

I needn’t have been concerned. “Jeux” is not a classic, and I do wish Eagling had got rid of the tennis racquets a little earlier, but it is all rather appealing. There is plenty of room for the ballet to grow, and for characterisations to develop fully. The costumes are smashing too, Wizzy Shawyer having come up with some classic takes on 1920s tennis gear.

Following “Jeux”, Vadim Muntagirov showed much athleticism as he cartwheeled and tumbled his way through “Le beau gosse” (handsome young chap) from Nijinska’s “Le Train bleu”, created for the 1924 Paris Olympics and so rather appropriately making a reappearance now, however brief. Muntagirov was as light as a feather and made everything look so easy. The solo is very short. Blink and you miss it. But it brought the house down. Coco Chanel’s stripy bathing costume is never going to be a best seller though!

Rounding off what has been a terrific season was Serge Lifar’s white tutu-fest, “Suite en blanc”. Lifar was Balanchine’s first Apollo, so in a way, the ballet completed the circle. Danced against black wall, steps and platform, it sometimes seems as if the performers are floating in space. It’s a piece designed to show off the company and it works a treat. The dancing was outstanding throughout. The highlight was Elena Glurdjidze in the Cigarette variation. Her series of speedy entrechat sixes were impressive indeed. Elsewhere, Yonah Acosta was all panache in the Mazurka, and Erina Takahashi and Zdenek Konvalina were a most arresting pairing in the pas de deux, the former also showing some super turns in her closing solo.

It was all heady stuff, and as in everything else, the whole company looked on top form. The season has been a fabulous goodbye from outgoing artistic director Wayne Eagling. Whoever succeeds him has a very difficult act to follow.

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