There's a buzz in the air…
The Our Voices triple bill at Sadler's Wells feels like the arrival of a different English National Ballet. This notion doesn't negate what came before, as legacy is a necessary fact, but there's a sense of positive newness.
The programme sees recently appointed director Aaron Watkin offer his take on where he thinks ENB should be, and subsequently going. And it's a balanced, worthwhile forecast.
Opening is George Balanchine's Theme and Variations, to the divine final movement of Tchaikovsky's Orchestral Suite N° 3. Created in 1947 for the Cuban legend Alicia Alonso at Ballet Theatre (now American Ballet Theatre), it's still known as one of the most difficult ballets to perform due to the technical requirements. The ENB first night principal couple were Emma Hawes and Aitor Arrieta and they did a fine job, but if I had to use only one word to describe their performances it would be ‘cautious'.
Hawes is a ballerina, no doubt, and I'm sure by the end of the run she'll be bringing more to the table, but last night she was definitely on the reserved side; impeccably so. Arrieta developed as the show unfolded. He had a few moments of technical uncertainty but recovered well and quickly, though even by the end his presence didn't have the largeness that the role requires.
The soloists and corps also did more than acceptable work, but need to keep exploring the Balanchine methodology. There was execution informed by shape, rather than dance found through risk-laden, dynamically brave movement exploration. Where's the attack, abandon, devouring of space and verging-on-violent finish? I know it's classical ballet, but actually is it? Does Balanchine require the same approach as Petipa if it's one of his tutu ballets? I'd say categorically no. The dancing in New York takes the breath away, but this isn't happening in Islington yet. Better to fall over than know you didn't go where the work needs you to. That's the Ashley Bouder school of thought anyway!
I was even less enamoured of the production. The sets and costumes by Roberta Guidi di Bagno feel more Lewisham High Street than anything else. The bling effusing diamonique rather than precious stone, and the three chandeliers are a no. They even turned off at one point… hello stage management! Guidi di Bagno has used a bizarre, on the verge of spoiling, peach hue for the corps tutus, and the wings dressed in a heavy, brown brocade just don't scream glamour – and they should.
And without sounding like a total Debbie Downer, I also struggled with the music. The score lacked imperative dreamy playfulness and powerful dynamics in execution, and the overall timbre wasn't great either. Maybe the speakers and acoustics need checking?
The middle work is Les Noces, Ascent to Days by the American choreographer Andrea Miller. The initial 1923 Les Noces is, of course, by Bronislava Nijinska to the epic Stravinsky score, and Miller's 2023 version is in reverence to the original work's centenary, being (somewhat) celebrated throughout the dance world.
Miller graduated from Juilliard, danced with Batsheva, and then started her own company Gallim Dance in 2007 in New York City. She's a modern dance maker finding herself with commissions from ballet companies (New York City Ballet in 2020 and 2021), so the dialogue of genre continues at ENB.
Her Noces is looking at the aftermath of Nijinsky's Le Sacre du printemps; in short, we find ourselves in a community directly after a sacrifice has taken place. Miller has used 17 dancers, four solo singers, and 32 members of Opera Holland Park for the vast live experience.
I think she's gone a bit too far with the Rite inspiration, as fundamentally that's what she's created: a Rite of Spring in narrative and structure to the Les Noces score. There are of course similarities as both works deal with elements of community and ritual, so perhaps Miller isn't to be inextricably blamed for going where she's gone.
Phyllida Barlow's set and other design elements are very Hayward Gallery, and that isn't always a compliment. We have a foaming staircase and hanging bird's nest, and I'm not sure of the significance of either. The lighting design by Mark Henderson is minimal and unflattering, but this isn't problematic because the piece doesn't call for a filter-style finish.
Miller has also included material as a prop, that extends the movement and narrative exploration possibilities. A large black sheet acts as a shroud, crowd controller, and dividing line between the present and the afterlife, with smaller, individual ones emphasising the catatonic, ritual-focused moments. The material of course adds another dimension, but it also reads like a frenzied, violent laundry day. Similarly, I struggled with the costuming by Marie Cantenys and Margaux Lalanne, as it so often gets tangled up in moving limbs somewhat impeding everyone's experience.
Miller does interesting things with the afterlife Chosen One in relation to narratively informed choreography. There's a perpetual, spiritual element to her movement which sets her apart from the (living) crowd and allows for clear understanding. Miller also shows a Mother's grief brilliantly. It's guttural and basic – at one point it seems like she's beating her ovaries. Alice Bellini does a brilliant job, likewise Rentaro Nakaaki as the Son – a wonderfully physical dancer.
The cast clearly relished doing Miller's movement. It's abundantly evident in their focus and commitment, a prime example being the male cast's ‘run and launch yourself at the floor' diagonal… ouch. One can understand why they're in this mindset, as the overall dance language feels original, innovative and with gravitas. There are lots of strong components to the work, but it hasn't quite gelled as a complete piece in its own right. I wish that Miller had done more of her own thing inspirationally… where would that have taken us?
Closing the evening is another world premiere: Four Last Songs by David Dawson to Richard Strauss's final composition of the same name. Dawson is English but you wouldn't know it. Though Royal Ballet School trained and a dancer at both Birmingham Royal Ballet and English National Ballet, the majority of his choreographic career has developed, and excelled, in Europe – predominantly in Amsterdam and Dresden (Watkin's former directorship).
It's exciting to see him return to London, or even want to as his professional artistic path hasn't always been a smooth one here. He confirmed the piece's aim is “poetic humanity”, and it's a largely successful venture in practice.
Dawson has experience and skill, so there's little to say there, and his dance language traits are on full show. However, one aspect that could do, at times, with a little more grace are the mechanics of pas de deux. He uses a lot of lifts, which is fine, but there's an abundance of evident preparation and heaving on display.
He has a way of moving the individual and group that communicates the molecular, like we're watching DNA form. It's infectious, but I'd also enjoy more of the opposite, as he creates beautiful shape, yet there's less of this to obviously savour. Likewise with the female dancers moving independently as they tend to spend the majority of their stage time being partnered.
Dawson is also renowned for an expressive, extreme version of classical port de bras. His stunning cast do him proud, but I wonder if the physical intention could burgeon more from the openness of the chest, rather than a perpetual loss of the arms behind the body line? Just a thought.
The Strauss isn't easy music to choreograph to as it doesn't have obvious time signatures or phrasing – at least to a layman like me. This can make the dynamic journey feel one-dimensional, but the purity of Madeleine Pierard's voice is anything but a chore to listen to.
Dawson has worked with an inspired cast of dancers, all looking resplendent (and superhuman) in Yumiko Takeshima's simple, skin-tone, ‘barely there' ensembles. I'd ask the technical staff to have a look at the staging of Eno Henze's set though – the screened clouds are tickety-boo, but the off-angle, hanging backdrop pieces are broken in line by flimsy black curtains acting as wings. Not a good – or the desired – look I'm sure.
Some will read this piece and say the criticism is too critical. It isn't my job to defend the writing or convince people that it's coming from a good place, but it is my obligation to write from an honest space, which is what I aim to do. None of us have a cushy time, especially when we care about something so much. In closing, I share a (profound) quote by Dawson from a recent ENB social media post that most definitely got me thinking: “Art isn't easy… and it shouldn't be.”
Can I get an Amen?
Matthew Paluch was awarded a place at The Royal Ballet School in 1990 where he graduated in 1997. His first four years as a professional dancer were spent working with London City Ballet, Scottish Ballet, K-Ballet and English National Ballet, becoming a full-time member of ENB until leaving in 2006.
Matthew graduated from the Royal Academy of Dance, Professional Dancers' Teaching Diploma in 2007, and was fomerly on faculty at The Royal Ballet School. He completed his Masters in Ballet Studies at Roehampton University in 2011 and has been a freelance writer since 2010. He is a Trustee (2021) of the Royal Academy of Dance and works in the Law Sector.