Jann Parry sees English National Ballet School's Summer Performance
|Company||English National Ballet School|
|Venue||Peacock Theatre, London|
|Date||8 July 2023|
English National Ballet School celebrates its 35th anniversary this year. Artistic director Viviana Durante came on stage at the start of its Summer Performance show to welcome Peter Schaufuss, who founded the school as a feeder for the company he had renamed English National Ballet (formerly London Festival Ballet). Back in 1979, while Schaufuss was a principal dancer with LFB under Beryl Grey's leadership, he had been invited to mount a production of his favourite Danish ballet, La Sylphide. It proved such a success that he succeeded Dame Beryl as artistic director in 1984, changed the company's name to ENB and set up the school. Starting with just 12 students, it now takes 30 into its three-year training programme.
To honour Schaufuss's involvement, this year's school performances opened with extracts from Act II of his ENB version of August Bournonville's La Sylphide. In this abbreviated account, a corps of sylphs populates the magical domain into which James is led by La Sylphide. She is Florence Lane, he is Gabriel Pimparel, both 2nd-year students. There is no set, so the charming mime scene that leads into their pas de deux makes little sense for anyone who doesn't know the ballet already. (She offers him wild strawberries, spring water and a butterfly – as well as a bird's nest from high up a tree.) Lane has a lovely light ballon, as though flying rather jumping; Pimparel's leaps are more obviously effortful, landing in the deep pliés that Schaufuss did so impressively in his prime. Well-coached, the cast wrapped their feet around Bournonville's speedy steps – not helped by a horribly amplified recording of Løvenskjold's ballet score.
Next came Morgann Runacre-Temple's Sound and Vision, set to David Bowie's 1977 song recalling ‘blue, blue, electric blue…waiting for the gift of sound and vision'. The motif that links the cast of 3rd-year graduates is a vintage telephone with an old-fashioned receiver handed around amongst them. Maybe it's a reference to the Seventies of the song, or simply a more visible prop than a mobile phone. The recipients in the pass-the-receiver game look concerned or apprehensive, hanging on until the piece ends with a woman spinning in the darkness, ignored by the man at the end of the telephone. Though the inaudible message is concerning, the music and choreography are upbeat, and enjoyable to experience for performers and spectators alike.
The first half of the programme ends with a perpetuum mobile for twelve 1st and 2nd-year men to a mash-up of familiar music by Rossini, Glazunov and von Weber. Of Space and Time is Andrew McNicol's mini-Etudes, created in 2020 for the school's Winter Programme during Covid restrictions. Filmed in The Roundhouse in north London, the original version was performed without an audience by students wearing face masks. In this men-only excerpt, youngsters unmuffled by masks let rip in a breathless combination of virtuoso steps and gymnastic feats, revelling in appreciative applause.
After the interval comes Flock by Monique Jonas, versatile dancer, choreographer, teacher and founder of her own company. Though the title of the new piece is reminiscent of Crystal Pite's works featuring flight patterns and hive minds, Flock doesn't involve pulsing movements en masse. Instead, Jonas sets up differing height levels with female dancers perched on men's shoulders, contrasted with others seated on the floor, one leg crossed, arms flickering. Brief solos are soon absorbed back into the group, only for a body to be lifted high above the rest. The harmonious strumming music is by Le Trio Joubran, a family of oud players from Palestine.
Last comes Who Cares?, Balanchine's Gershwin ballet staged by Deborah Wingert from the Balanchine Trust. It's not the complete ballet with solos and duets for principal dancers but the corps numbers, with brief partnerships – only five male graduates appear to be available. Who Cares? is at the very opposite end of the spectrum from La Sylphide: it's brash, requiring its performers to sell it, whereas the Bournonville tradition is deceptively modest. Good for the graduates, who need to know how to do Broadway (or Christopher Wheeldon's choreography in West End musical mode). This year's Summer Performance ended on a high note with high kicks – a well-balanced programme.
Jann Parry, former dance critic of The Observer (1983-2004), has written for many publications as a freelance, and has contributed to radio and TV documentaries about dancers.
She is the author of the award-winning biography Different Drummer, the life of Kenneth MacMillan (2009).