Fernanda Oliveira and Fabian Reimair in Russell Maliphants Echoes © English National Ballet

English National Ballet: Digital Season

Tamara Rojo, always a forward thinking artistic director (of English National Ballet), has remained stoical and fought hard to realise her aspirations for the company. In these straightened times where scheduled live performances for the past year have been regularly cancelled at the eleventh hour, it was clever to prepare for the worst case scenario and start from a different standpoint. Five commissions, five different choreographers joining forces with different filmmakers and each film released, one a week from 23 November until 21 December. This should have been a Sadler’s Wells season of live world premieres toward the end of November, but instead the programme has turned out to be an interesting advance in innovation, not just for the dancers and choreographers but for the film directors who are as much a part of the outcome as the protagonists. Each film is approximately fifteen minutes duration; the choreographers were assigned their bubbles of dancers (as per Covid rules) and created from vastly differing platforms.  The results are fascinating, brilliantly conceived and realised, although there is an overriding thread of dimly lit sets which is not easy on the eye when you’re watching on a small screen. As an added bonus, each piece comes with an accompanying mini-documentary (all five directed by Michael Nunn and William Trevitt) discussing the creative process.

“Take Five Blues” by Stina Quagebeur ©English National Ballet

The first release was from ENB’s Associate Choreographer Stina Quagebeur who is still a dancer with the company. She had enormous success with her first main stage creation Nora (for which she won a National Dance Award). Take Five Blues was inspired by Nigel Kennedy’s interpretations of Dave Brubeck’s Take Five followed by Bach’s Vivace in a melding of classical and jazz music. It has a slightly Forsythe-influenced introduction as the dancers look relaxed walking around the set in their own worlds, but as they go into full dance mode, it becomes very much Quagebeur’s own. For five boys and three girls, it is an accurate and irrepressible expression of the music, and just when you think they can relax, the pace picks up with unrelenting fervour. The movement is classically based but with a jazz influence, all swinging hips and a thrust that seems to come not from a nice, neat preparation but from a musical impetus. The energy generated builds to a suitable crescendo and an amusing, exhausted collapse (just the men) at the close. Amid a stellar cast, I was delighted to see Angela Wood coming into her own. Shaun James Grant is the filmmaker and he shows a real flare for the sense of movement that the ballet portrays. It is clear that Quagebeur’s close working relationship with her colleagues enabled her to bring out the best in them.

Francesca Velicu in “Jolly Folly” by Arielle Smith

The second release, on 30 November was by well-known international choreographer Yuri Possokhov. Senseless Kindness is, surprisingly, Possokhov’s first UK creation and a much overdue British debut. Based loosely on Vasily Grossman’s novel, Life and Fate, it is set in Russia during the Second World War to Shostakovich’s Piano Trio No 1. For two couples, right from the start, the choreography is deftly put together. In simple costumes (designed by Federica Romano and made by Romano and Robbie Gordon) the ballet, whilst not telling a definitive story, is brimming with emotion, expertly portrayed by Isaac Hernández, Alison McWhinney, Francesco Gabriele Frola and Emma Hawes. The dancing is intricate, in a series of pas de deux, duets between both the men and women and solos, all danced with passion. The director, Thomas James, chose to film in black and white, which is highly effective, alongside using projections to indicate a change in location, that almost steal the show. Played beautifully on a recording by Matthew Scrivener (violin), Garry Stevens (cello) and Julia Richter (piano) and conducted by Gavin Sutherland – I believe this piece will work just as well in a live theatre performance.

Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s Laid in Earth, also directed by James and released on 7 December, is the most likely to suffer when performed in the theatre. To Purcell’s famous aria from Dido and Aeneas (sung by mezzo soprano Flora McIntosh) and with new compositions by Olga Wojciechowska, this is set in some kind of ghoulish middle earth. In muddied costumes and makeup, crawling through the undergrowth, confronting skulls and sprouting vegetation from faces and shoulders – this is better named a dance film rather than filmed dance. In terms of imagination, the honours should go to Natasha Lawes’ makeup which was visually extraordinary. Again, I found it difficult to watch the dark scenes on a small screen but it was, nevertheless, intriguing. Cherkaoui’s choreography reflects the earthiness of the setting, grindingly slow, slightly agonising movements as if trying to delay the inevitable transition from life to death but for all it’s gruesomeness and visual promise, as well as excellently controlled execution, Erina Takahashi, James Streeter, Jeffrey Cirio and Precious Adams were rather under employed.

Isaac Hernández, Emma Hawes, Francesco Frola and Aloson McWhinney in “Senseless Kidness” by Yuri Possokhov

Week 4 saw Russell Maliphant’s Echoes being aired. He has always been interested in how his choreography has been lit and sees it as an integral part of the success of the piece. It was team Nunn and Trevitt who were the filmmakers, and video designer Panagiotis Tomaras who worked with Maliphant to produce some rather special lighting effects. Once again, it was a struggle to make out anything very much at the start because it was so dark, but once I had grown accustomed, it felt like looking into the bottom of the ocean. I think this was in part down to Dana Fouras’ soundscape but also because of the sea of constantly changing shapes – all in slow motion. If it was a little soporific in the first half, a very fluid duet for Fernanda Oliveira and Fabian Reimair, it picked up pace when joined by five more dancers. Maliphant is always curves, no sharp corners and if this did not stray too far from his signature vocabulary, his work is always thoughtful and visually stimulating.

The final premiere, released on 21 December, was the biggest departure from anything we’ve seen before. At 24, Arielle Smith is also a relative newcomer and remarkably on top of her game for someone so young. Her piece, Jolly Folly, is inspired by the silent movies of the 1920s. In three very short acts to music by the Klass Brothers – Classic meets Cuba: Symphonic Salsa, its title is apt. It’s a romp and the dancers rise to this very different offering with typical panache. The music (Cuba Danube/Cuban Sugar/Kubanischer Marsh) hints at many familiar tunes but along with the dancing, the projections and designs manage to transport us to an entirely different era. Filmed by Amy Becker-Burnett in black and white, this is a winner, even taking us to a boxing ring (a fight between Francesca Velicu and Julia Conway) and with Eric Woolhouse perched on top of a rock, it was a perfect form of escape to finish off this year.

The most profound message came across during the documentary interviews – that even when theatres are closed, the creative process doesn’t need to stop. Indeed, the art of collaboration has been fully exploited here. The dancers all reported having to discover different ways to move, to learn and absorb new vocabularies – what better way to benefit their careers?

Reviewed  Deborah Weiss