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Ecstasy and Death ('Petit Mort' 'Le Jeune Homme et la Mort', 'Etudes'

English National Ballet

by Charlotte Kasner

April 18, 2013 -- London Coliseum, London, UK

Tamara Rojo has stated that she wants to challenge audiences and bring something different to the English National Ballet repertoire. Well, there is plenty in this programme to challenge the Company, although perhaps less for the experienced audience members.

It is difficult to believe that Jiri Kylian’s “Petit Mort” is is more than two decades old, so fresh does it seems in this presentation. There are many choreographic difficulties that the Company tackle admirably which got the evening off to a fine start. Far too many pieces begin in silence which becomes more and more agonising for the audience as the dancers writhe to the sound of their own rasping breath. Not so “Petit Mort” which has the audience, if not quite on the edge of their seats, sitting up while the dancer’s partner foils. There was one sublime moment when all the cast used exactly the same amount of force to spin the blades on the floor and they all stopped as one in perfect unison as if they were radio controlled. Even the slight slip when one went astray was recovered from deftly.

The dozen soloists dazzle with constant changes of dynamic, one minute producing razor-sharp turns, the next, controlled extensions. There are many demi-lifts where the women flex their feet in second position, echoing the shape of the farthingales that they later glide on to the amused titters of the audience. They are stretching up one minute, hugging the floor the next and all executed seamlessly. How lovely also, to hear the “Elvira Madigan” piano concerto played live instead of, as last week, with Schaufuss ballet, recorded. Older generations of classical dancers often found the transition to a more contemporary style difficult, rather like the way that some opera singers struggle with musicals without adjusting their technique. It is thus a mark of the strength of the current ENB crop of dancers that they seem to face no such difficulties.

Prior to here, and perhaps surprisingly, I had never seen Roland Petit’s “Le Jeune Homme et la Mort” live. It is far less stark than on film and loses some of its shocking effect on the large and rather clunky set. But such is the power of guest artist Nicolas le Riche that it avoids slipping into melodrama, although the ending seems de trop. Rojo has none of the gamin femme fatale that Zizi Jeanmaire brought to the role. She is more the careless coquette. She was not helped by the girlish yellow dress that made her look more like an escapee from Flemming Flindt’s “The Lesson”. It is easy to see why she would want to dance this juicy role, although it does not showcase her talents at their best.

The same cannot be said of Harald Lander’s “Etudes” which has enabled cohorts of London Festival/ENB dancers to show off. It is an unforgiving work that demands precision technique from everyone in the Company and they didn’t disappoint. There were one or two wobbles and the odd dodgy landing but not enough to mar the excitement. It may be an old warhorse but it is a delightful one with a score that demands that the orchestra play their socks off. Many years of grinding away at scales finally pay off as each section works their fingers to the bone in the fiendish opening. A special mention here to the brass for fine lip work! The diagonal work along the lines of light never ceases to please.

On this occasion we were especially fortunate in having the glorious Gavin Sutherland wielding the baton, surely one of the best conductors that ENB has ever had. The orchestra always display sensitivity to their dancers and this programme delivered as many challenges for them as were present on stage.

A jolly good time was had by all, and the Company deserved fully their vociferous curtain calls at the end of the evening.

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