Tamara Rojo’s final programme for English National Ballet, before she begin’s her tenure as artistic director with San Fransisco Ballet, was a triple bill of substance. Whilst regular audiences will have been familiar with William Forsythe’s Blake Works I and Stina Quagebeur’s Take Five Blues, Mats Ek has created a new version of The Rite of Spring for the company (his last one was made 38 years ago and he wasn’t happy with it). Thanks to rail strikes, followed by cancellation of said strikes, I was watching a second cast and how very impressive they were. Forsythe’s Blake Works I is such a feel-good piece. Set to songs by James Blake, from his album The Colour of Anything, the dancers just go with the flow of the music, with an abundance of energy and exuberance. Whilst they are required to have a formidable classical technique, those that get properly into the groove, fare best. Rhys Antoni Yeomans and Erik Woolhouse are astonishingly good in Forsythe’s ballets, with crisp footwork and flexibility shown to great effect in this. Also outstanding were Emily Suzuki and Junor Souza in The Colour of Anything duet and Emma Hawes and Aitor Arrieta in the final pas de deux to f.o.r.e.v.e.r.
Quagebeur’s Take Five Blues continues in the jazzy vein and we feel as if we’ve gate-crashed the party. It was superbly danced by the cast of five men and three women, who embrace the slightly competitive thrust, all in good humour. It’s good to see that this piece, which started life as a lockdown film, has remained in the repertoire, as it suits the company and sits very well on this triple bill.
Ek’s The Rite of Spring is fascinating, though one could question why ENB needs another version so soon after acquiring Pina Bausch’s (2018). The chance to work with Ek must have been a hugely attractive prospect. In reality, they could not be more different. With English National Ballet Philharmonic in the pit, conducted by Timothy Henty, Stravinsky’s score took the performance up to another level. Rather than use the traditional theme of sacrifice, Ek has chosen to focus on an arranged marriage. The main characters are Mother (Precious Adams), Father (Fabian Reimair), Daughter (Breanna Foad) and Bridegroom (Francesco Gabriele Frola).
The costumes (Marie-Louise Ekman) are boxy, flesh-coloured, silk and foam kimonos which stand out from the dark backdrop depicting the outline of a house. The movement style is very much Ek’s own and this works well within the context of the theme. Punchy jumps, a lot of very square shapes and plenty of thrashing and stomping. It’s an interesting concept but while the Daughter is decidedly rebellious to the demands of her culture, she does in the end, submit to the wedding. It seems that in the tentative moments when the couple are finally left alone, they succumb to one another with pleasure. Surely this is the best outcome. The parents, however, embark on an agenda of severe punishment, with the support of the community, resulting in the expulsion of the Bridegroom and a public, horrific beating of the Daughter. It’s a shocking conclusion, though the Daughter prevails, defiant to the bitter end. Adams and Reimair are brutal disciplinarians; Frola an innocent, ultimately tragic victim in the final outcome. I would expect nothing less than brilliance from these established artists. The welcome surprise came with Foad as the Daughter, who, to my knowledge has hitherto only appeared in the corps de ballet. What a revelation she was – feisty, with a terrific stage presence and a strong technique. Let’s hope that Ek’s decision to cast her in this very tough role will pave the way for many more opportunities. Watch this space!