Guest author Matthew Paluch sees English National Ballet's triple bill Ek/ Forsythe/ Quagebeur
|Ek/ Forsythe/ Quagebeur
|English National Ballet
|Sadler's Wells, London
|10 November 2022
Can countries run without leaders? Generally, not for long.
Can ballet companies run without directors? If yes, what does that say about the necessity of the pinnacle of the pyramid scheme?
English National Ballet returns to Sadler's Wells with a new triple bill, but no artistic director and 300k less a year from Arts Council England (though peanuts compared to other situations).
Tamara Rojo – who becomes the new artistic director of San Francisco Ballet in December – has already been spotted stateside on World Ballet Day (2 November). She and the Executive Director looked very happy. The 2023 season was programmed by the former director Helgi Tomasson, so I suppose we need to sit and wait to see what the company's 2024 season will look like.
Rojo left London with an adios interview in the Telegraph. It was very much ‘here's what I've done – here's where I'm going'. It didn't feel hugely reflective, but hey, as Dame Merle Park once said as the director of The Royal Ballet School (in the early 90s), “It's the survival of the fittest.” Very Hunger Games rather than the Healthier Dancer Programme (One Dance UK) approach.
Rojo may have gone to Silicon Valley (watch out Meta!) – but ENB is still here. The bill is Rojo programming – so her legacy continues – and it's a strong one, which she was in attendance to witness on the opening night.
When programmes are named solely after the choreographers one assumes they're the actual selling point: Ek/ Forsythe/ Quagebeur
Ek as in Mats: Swedish titan of modern dance; Forsythe as in William (Bill to his contemporaries): the father of modern ballet (post Mr B); and Quagebeur (Stina): the proposition of the trio and a relatively new name on the scene. She's recently retired from ENB, and very much a Rojo mentee.
The programme opens with the Forsythe inclusion: Blake Works I (with music by James Blake). It was originally choreographed for the Paris Opera in 2016 and included in ENB's repertoire in spring of this year, so we already know the work, and have seen the company dance it previously. The first viewing was a success for me as it was a departure from the previous work Forsythe created for ENB in 2018, Playlist (Track 1, 2), and the subsequent development of that work in 2022, Playlist (EP). Audiences and critics loved the Playlist moments, but I however struggled. It wasn't the Forsythe of Paris 1994. It felt far more commercial and lowbrow pour moi – very ‘Bill does Vegas'. But Blake Works I less so, and the second viewing reconfirmed the merit of the work.
First and foremost, the company look super. They're clearly very happy dancing the piece. The work is divided into seven sections and includes all you'd expect: duos, trios, group numbers etc. The movement is also recognisable if familiar with Forsythe's canon with classical ballet language and then some. The some being spatial exploration, port de bras evolution, abandon of form, and epaulement that catches the light like a Michelangelo. It's basically what classical dancers really want to do because it allows them to utilise their honed techniques but also let rip simultaneously. A heady combo. I reiterate how good the whole company look, but of course there's some standouts.
Ivana Bueno had a very fresh vibe and effortless execution. Miguel Angel Maidana offered genuine physicality, and Fernando Carratala Coloma had a sophisticated, understated maturity. Emma Hawes was stunning in the final pas de deux. She has a melancholy length to her work which is very watchable. I'm sure she featured more earlier this year… that should be reinstated ASAP. And then there's Emily Suzuki, who also made a major impact in the UK premiere. What a blast she's having, playing and exploring movement as she goes. Her pas de deux with Junor Souza is one of inquisitiveness and slight panic. When she dances alone elsewhere, the joy takes over her face, which radiates – naturally. Take heed some other cast members: don't oversell something that's already doing all the talking. Regarding applied sass, less is definitely more. And be wary of ©ForsytheFace (I'm copyrighting this unless it already exists?!). Some facial gurns are best done when alone.
The sandwich filling is Quagebeur – no pressure! It's no easy feat being on a bill with those other names. Quagebeur presents Take Five Blues, originally created for ENB's digital programme in 2020, and then extended for a 2021 live version. I saw the work back then and remember feeling satisfied, and still do. I very much like the lighting design by Simon Bennison. Spherical lights of different sizes at different heights float above the stage with a soft hue. It's subtle and powerful, just like Quagebeur's choreography. She takes the cast of nine on an almost intangible dynamic journey, in the sense that the energy of the piece ebbs and flows without obvious changes, and that isn't an easy thing to do. The music by Paul Desmond – a Nigel Kennedy recording – has a layered feeling: easy but articulate. Quagebeur's language exudes the same relationship. She choreographs very fluid, yet precise movement that subsequently challenges the dancers who clearly relish the opportunity. The use of circular, internal focused spacing suggests the cast are dancing more for each other, and that we as the audience aren't being performed at, but rather invited to partake. It's a good feeling. I propose her partnering work needs a little development as it felt predictable. And I'd also lose the bog standard fouetté moment. The turn combo phrase options are literally limitless, no? That said, she creates atmosphere and movement which dancers enjoy doing. Quagebeur rose to the challenge of being on the same bill as literal dance deities and didn't feel out of place one iota. Respect.
And finally to Ek, who is offering a new work (well kind of) which is a very big deal – for ENB and dance in general. It's his first commission for the company and he's gone for Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring. What else? The original by Vaslav Nijinsky (1913), and subsequent versions by Kenneth MacMillan (1962) and Pina Bausch (1975) are the key players to date. But, of course, there are many more, including one by Ek himself in 1984. He's confirmed he wasn't satisfied with that reading and so here he goes again, 38 years later.
A man behind me at the end raved about how new it was. In ways, yes – but also no. To me it's very much the existing reading of the libretto/narrative. It still looks at community (16 dancers) but further developed into an actual family unit: mother, father, daughter and bridegroom (Les Noces comparisons inevitable). The omnipresent, uncomfortable presence of the patriarchy is still there, and we also see a lack of sisterhood when the women, including the mother, turn on the daughter (group violence to elicit submission). Predictably, the men do the same to the bridegroom. There's also a permanent sense of foreboding, enhanced by the menacing ensemble community, which feels quite uncomfortable pretty much from the beginning. Powerful enough that I found myself wishing for the end even though I knew the experience would be profound regardless of the discomfort… and it was. Why? I'd say the score, movement, execution, and design. Oh, wait a minute, that's everything LOL.
So basically, it's a work of art. The score speaks for itself, as does Ek's experienced choreographic craft. He achieves what everyone else is trying to do – simple movement that isn't simplistic, that also allows for the execution to be the protagonist. His dystopian, patriarchal world is further communicated through enforced, gendered movement. This is also where the design concept comes into play, visually and consequently culturally. Marie Louise Ekman takes us to Japan in the traditional attire and a minimal, black graphic set. The cast wear Haori of differing lengths in soft pink and white, the structured material taking on a Cubist visual and percussive role in action and supplementing Ek's architectural choreography, often shown in door plane* to emphasise the action. The movement also references the stereotypical, historical roles of Japanese culture. The small, subservient steps of the Geisha; the aggressive, extensive stalk of the Warrior; all of this done with narrative, and emotional intention by the whole cast, regardless of who they are, or where their allegiances lay.
The moral questions of Ek's 2022 reading are similar to those that came before. When do tradition and ceremony (forced marriage) become the problem themselves? When do these rituals perpetuate oppression in relation to gender? Is there a way to escape? He, and those before him aim to demonstrate the possible answers through characterisation and the related movement. Erina Takahashi as the Mother is turmoil itself. Knowing the role she must play, resigning to it, and then warping into violence as a mode of release. James Streeter as the Father is stoic and emotionally cruel towards his troubled daughter. Fernando Carratala Coloma as the bridegroom is a man-child out of his depth and fundamentally weak. And Emily Suzuki as the Daughter is many things: young, defiant, strong and ultimately a survivor.
Towards the end of the ritual a stick takes centre stage (literally) and becomes the focus for the whole cast. How should it be read? As a weapon? A phallus? Both? On the final crescendo scream of the score the Daughter rams the rod towards the threatening community/family mass and they all drop to the floor. Most other Rites have a blackout, using the musical build as the dynamic finish. Not Ek. He allows the daughter to slowly walk through the aftermath she just caused in silence, forcing her to witness and contemplate the fallout of her decision. Which was? The self. The tradition stops here. At any cost. An emancipation. She walks into the distance as the curtain lowers. The Bridegroom? A headless quivering body hiding in a dark, upstage corner. She sees him momentarily but continues. True emancipation evidently has no room for weakness. Profound stuff.
The company are in stellar form and look very happy. Interesting timing…
It's wonderful to see, and demands one regards English National Ballet as a real contender in the sector. This isn't the underdog it may have once been considered. This is dancing and repertoire to truly challenge their Covent Garden or Birmingham-based peers. English National Ballet Philharmonic conducted by Gavin Sutherland (the company's musical director) played Rite very well, but live music for only one of three pieces on a bill by a company with a resident orchestra… perplexing programming choice.
* Rudolf von Laban (1879-1958), creator of Labanotation used for recording movement, especially that of dance, defined three cardinal planes: “door plane”, “table plane”, and “wheel plane”.
The door plane (vertical and horizontal dimension where the vertical dimension is dominant) is flat and wall-like, with a space behind the body and a space in front; 2-dimensional.
The table plane (horizontal and sagittal dimension where the horizontal dimension is dominant) is like a flat surface – a table – where circular movement (a rond de jambe for example) is possible.
The wheel plane (sagittal and vertical dimension where the sagittal dimension is dominant) is like a narrow tunnel allowing forward or back motion, such as flex and extension, or travelling movement in straight lines.
It's almost needless to say that Laban studied architecture in Paris before becoming involved in the performing arts.