Happy Birthday English National Ballet! 2020 sees this at-times unstable company celebrate seventy years since its establishment as London’s Festival Ballet, then essentially a backing ensemble for the star dancers Alicia Markova and Anton Dolin. Its history has been rocky, with artistic and financial crises littering its path through the decades, but throughout it has been characterised by a raffish charm, an occasional belt-and-braces approach to getting show on, and the appearance of the greatest dancers of the time, unable to break through The Royal Ballet’s standing policy of ‘No Guests’. Certainly, the company seems in fine form at present, ensconced in its spacious new home in London’s East End and led by Tamara Rojo, star dancer and director of vision and fearsome determination.
Certainly, this celebratory gala programme (repeated twice more to allow the public to see the company in party mode) was a slick affair, with the sixteen pieces of the first half following on from each other without a hitch. It was very much unusual gala fare, and did not include a single ‘warhorse’ pas de deux, wheeled out for yet another party. Rather, these were often company-based excerpts from a selection of both the active and historical repertoires, allowing all to appear, principals often part of the ensemble, corps de ballet as important as any.
There were, of course, particular highlights, not least La Rojo herself in a delightful Zizi Jeanmaire bobbed wig in the bedroom pas de deux from Roland Petit’s Carmen, all smoulder and playfulness, the brilliance of her star quality undimmed and ably matched by an emphatic Francesco Gabriele Frola – palpable sexual tension crackled between them. Another duet also stood out, firstly because that it was by Ben Stevenson, whose quality work is now pretty much forgotten in the UK, secondly that it was a beautifully crafted piece (the first Prelude in his work Three Preludes to Rachmaninov), featuring a ballet barre and displaying focussed, legato movement from Fernanda Oliveira and Junor Souza.
A youthful and explosive Frola in Apollo’s second solo from Balanchine’s ballet of the same name made one wish to see the whole work again (inexplicably ignored now for several seasons not only by ENB but also The Royal Ballet companies) while the striking Wave section from Akram Khan’s Dust served to remind us of the choreographer’s individual voice and level of inventiveness which with Giselle, scored the greatest success of Rojo’s directorship thus far and which promise much for his new Creature this spring. The Mazurka from Ronald Hynd’s Coppélia was lively and engaging – Brooklyn Mack and Shiori Kase twinkled as Swanhilda and Franz – while Playlist (Track 2), the second half of William Forsythe’s recent unexpected hit, showed just how much male talent exists in all ranks of the company. It made for a wholly contemporary, utterly uplifting end to the first half.
Post-interval, Etudes, first performed by LFB in 1955, one of its signature works, and never long absent from performance. This being a gala, principal roles were shared out, allowing nearly all the senior-ranked dancers to appear. But this is, above all, a company work, designed to show off the entire ensemble, and, ENB showed that it continues to shine in its multiple technical challenges. Inspired by Czerny’s famous piano studies, it takes the audience from the basic five positions of classical ballet, through classroom practice to the most challenging tricks in the principal’s bag. It is not subtle stuff (fully in line with Knudåge Riisager’s rumbustious orchestrations) but, golly is it fun when as well danced as it was here. Harald Lander, the choreographer, was Danish, and there is much of that dance school’s tradition in the work – high, light jumps and fast, complicated footwork – but he was unafraid to push his dancers even back in 1948 into steps and combinations more akin to those of the Russian and French traditions. The ballet has been a showcase for successive generations of LFB/ENB stars, all eager to take on the multiple hurdles placed before them. This performance was exultant, the company in festive mood, and each dancer giving their all, from corps de ballet, through soloists to the white-clad principals.
Throughout all the performances, the company orchestra, the English National Ballet Philharmonic, played with its customary attack and aplomb. Under Music Director Gavin Sutherland they have become a highly accomplished musical ensemble whose serious work underpins the dancing on stage in a way which eludes some UK orchestras who play for the dance. What emanates from the pit matches the enthusiasm and engagement seen from the dancers and is wholly in the company tradition of giving real performances.
A final address by Rojo paid tribute to everyone, living and departed, who had been part of the ‘family’ over seventy years; she asked ex-dancers and back-stagers in the audience to wave back at her, brought on two members of the original company from 1950 and emphasised the exciting future that awaits English National Ballet. Happy Birthday indeed!