tue 18/06/2024

Voices of America, English National Ballet review - a punchy programme of contemporary ballet | reviews, news & interviews

Voices of America, English National Ballet review - a punchy programme of contemporary ballet

Voices of America, English National Ballet review - a punchy programme of contemporary ballet

Forsythe commission is a romping, swaggering joy of a piece

Erik Woolhouse in 'Playlist (Track 1,2)' by William Forsythe© Laurent Liotardo

A new William Forsythe ballet is quite a coup for English National Ballet; the choreographer hasn't made a piece in Britain in 20 years.

Premiered last night as part of ENB's Voices of America triple bill at Sadler's Wells, Forsythe's Playlist (Track 1, 2) makes a rousing finale to a punchy programme of contemporary ballet delivered with the style we've now come to expect from this classy, confident company.

Playlist (Track 1,2) is bravura neo-classical ballet and it shows off the chops of ENB's superb crop of male soloists. Forsythe was convinced to make it after seeing the company perform Le Corsaire in Paris, a daft and hokey costume piece that was lit up by the joie de vivre and swagger of ENB's dancers. It is that same joie de vivre and swagger that Forsythe has showcased in Playlist, using a score of soul and house music that brings a party air to proceedings and elicits whoops of delight from the audience.

Precious Adams and Aaron Robison in 'Approximate Sonata 2016' by William Forsythe. Photo by Laurent Liotardo.Don't let that fool you though; this is no watered-down music-video choreography using slow motion and cuts to look impressive: it's 10 minutes of classical workout that only elite dancers like this could possibly pull off, founded on precision beats and pirouettes and knife-sharp formations. The fluid, funky swagger that the dancers add – special mention here to principal Aaron Robison, who was really going for it – is just the icing on the top of a solid technical cake. By golly, it's fun.

If house and soul are not to your taste, you may prefer the minimalism of Forsythe's typical 80s and 90s work with long-time musical collaborator Thom Willems (supplier of the famous clangs and crunches that score In the middle, somewhat elevated...). Approximate Sonata 2016, a recent reworking of a 1996 piece, is vintage Forsythe/Willems, with stripped-back set and costumes, and a soundtrack of electronic hums and rhythmic scratches. Four couples dance in turn, dressed in basic practice-style clothes, in front of a black screen that keeps rising and lowering. It's as reduced a theatrical presentation as is possible while still keeping a proscenium; what you make of that depends on your perspective.

Jurgita Dronina and Matthew Astley in 'The Cage' by Jerome Robbins. Photo by Laurent Liotardo.For some, it will make the dance shine all the more. For a fairly irremediable maximalist like me, it feels like thin pickings. The dancers, all principals, are impressive: Alina Cojocaru and Jurgita Dronina have that magnetic prima ballerina air, at its most powerful in the piece's scattered seconds of stillness when they stare down the audience with unshakeable confidence, while Precious Adams (pictured above right with Aaron Robison) displays the same lean, long-limbed attack that made her so compelling when the company performed In the middle....

The Cage (1951) by Jerome Robbins makes a stark contrast to Approximate Sonata, with its sumptuous Stravinsky score and a story that, however strange, is fully articulated and compelling. In an insect colony a female Novice is hatched by the Queen and learns to kill males, one of whom she falls in love with before her sisters bring her back to the (murderous) straight and narrow (don't psychoanalyse it; you won't feel better about anything). Robbins was supremely skilled at creating atmosphere and conveying narrative; no need for a synopsis to understand what goes on here (and no need to check your watch either: it comes in at a lean 14 minutes). Jurgita Dronina (pictured above left with Matthew Astley) is the shaky Novice, and she's at her best in the lyrical passages with love interest/victim James Streeter. Dronina is a fluid, elegant dancer to her fingtertips and she can't quite summon the spiky scariness of say, NYCB's Wendy Whelan in the same role. The supporting cast of she-insects are splendidly otherwordly and convincing.
Crystal Costa in 'Fantastic Beasts' by Aszure Barton. Photo by Laurent Liotardo.Once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, and the third time – in this case – it is definitely a thing with female Canadian choreographers. Crystal Pite and Emily Molnar are top-quality acts, and so, it seems, is their compatriot Aszure Barton, choreographer of the evening's opening piece, Fantastic Beings (2016). Set to a symphonic score by Mason Bates, it's an abstract piece that flirts with creatureliness without pinning anything down – are those hairy things apes or bears (or wookiees)? Are the lycra-clad dancers more like birds or lizards or gazelles? Whatever; they're beautiful and so is the backdrop of twinkling stars. Bates's score is long and Barton's material feels stretched in places; at each of the (many) ending-type climaxes I thought it was a suitable time to stop. But credit for the striking sections, too: I won't forget the image of two female dancers wheeling and diving like birds over fluttery clarinet noise, or the power of the last movement with all the dancers spinning in uncanny hair suits. (Pictured above: Crystal Costa in Fantastic Beings)

ENB's spring triple bill at Sadler's Wells has become a highlight of the dance year. For the fourth year running they have presented a programme of integrity and strength, carefully crafted to hang together and to show off the power of the company. Not every moment will meet with every viewer's approval, but there's plenty in here to impress, and an overall picture of a company going from strength to strength.


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