English National Ballet Triple Bill – A Million Kisses to my Skin/Resolution/Études

A Million Kisses to my Skin
Music by JS Bach (Harpsichord Concerto No.1 in D minor, BWV1052)

Asta Bazevičiūté
Laura Bruña
Elena Glurdjidze
Daria Klimentová
Erina Takahashi

Anton Lukovkin
Thomas Edur
Cesar Morales

David Dawson – Choreography
Yumiko Takeshima – Costumes
Bert Dalhuysen – Lighting & Set Design

Music by Gustav Mahler (5 Rückert Lieder)

Begoña Cao
Fernanda Oliveira
Adela Ramirez
Adrienne Schulte

Mehdi Angot
Zhanat Atymtayev
James Forbat
Young-Jae Jung
Arionel Vargas

Elizabeth Sikora (mezzo-soprano)

Wayne Eagling – Choreography
Wayne Eagling & Wizzy Shawyer – Design
David Richardson – Lighting Design

Music by Carl Czerny [arr. Knudage Riisager]

Erina Takahashi
Zdenek Konvalina
Cesar Morales

Arionel Vargas
Lisa Probert
Jennie Harrington
Jung-ah Choi

Harald Lander – Choreography
Josette Amiel – Staging
(After) Rolf Gerard – Design
David Mohr – Lighting

Orchestra of English National Ballet
Gavin Sutherland

Reviewed by: G. J. Dowler

Reviewed: 3 July, 2008
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

A Million Kisses to my Skin: Agnes Oaks. Photograph: Sentinel News and MediaThree cheers for English National Ballet and its director Wayne Eagling. This company has had more than its fair share of rough patches, mostly as a result of limited funds; it is not out of the woods yet, and the dancers will have to return to their familiar diet of full-length works and crowd-pleasers just to stay afloat. But there is light in the form of the company’s acquisition of Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon this Autumn, and it has bravely booked the Royal Festival Hall (where the company started over 50 years ago as London Festival Ballet) to present a triple bill. A risky venture financially – but what a breath of fresh air for the dancers and their audience.

A Million Kisses to my Skin is the still-young David Dawson’s 2001 essay to Bach, a tall order for anyone, but one of which he acquits himself creditably. His neo-classical style seems at time to be ‘lyrical William Forsythe’ and when he asks for extremes of balance and extension it is never with the brutality of that American choreographer. The choreography possesses a serenity and an inner coherence which evoke the score, as well as a clear architecture of movement to render this an utterly pleasing work. It will never set the world on fire, but there is much of beauty and it gives the eight dancers some abstract and demanding choreography to tackle. Dancers are never happier than when being pushed to improve themselves.

A Million Kisses to my Skin: Thomas Edur and Agnes Oaks. Photograph: Patrick BaldwinOutstanding was Daria Klimentová, ENB’s razor-sharp classical ballerina, easily in command of her steps but also exuding both a pleasure in her dance and a control of her stage. Thomas Edur and Agnes Oaks, one of British ballet’s true dance partnerships, were as good as ever, the lightness of youth now gone from him but replaced by a truthfulness in everything he does. Amongst the stellar line-up Eagling had placed Anton Lukovkin (First Artist) and Laura Bruña (Artist), two young and junior dancers to prove their mettle. That they did so admirably is a credit to them, an indication of strength in the lower ranks of the company and a sure indication of a good director nurturing young talent.

A Million Kisses to my Skin: Daria Klimentová. Photograph: Patrick BaldwinEagling’s career as a choreographer has largely been carried out abroad, although his punk ballet for Covent Garden way back in 1984, Frankenstein, A Modern Prometheus, was a gas. Resolution is his first piece for ENB and for it he has chosen to tackle Mahler – not an easy task. It is made all the more difficult that there are already two acknowledged masterpieces to Mahler which set a near-impossible standard: Antony Tudor’s 1937 Dark Elegies set to the Kindertotenlieder and Kenneth MacMillan’s 1965 Song of the Earth to Das Lied von der Erde. Eagling has chosen the five Rückert Lieder as his score, and he is to be congratulated for having chosen ‘proper’ music – too often choreographers shy away from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in favour of other ‘easier’ periods.

Études. Photograph: Patrick BaldwinThe Rückert Lieder are heavy and dense, and provide a choreographic challenge as well as an aural treat, but Eagling, alas, seems to ignore the texts of Friedrich Rückert’s poems, reducing the mezzo soprano to another instrument in the orchestra (Elizabeth Sikora, so familiar on the ballet stage from her appearances and singing in MacMillan’s Mayerling, was excellent). Eagling has taken his experience with a charity working for males (and it is always males) suffering from the degenerative illness Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy; not the most immediate inspiration one would think for dance, but he has reacted sensitively and created a generally satisfying ballet.

It is unfortunate that Eagling has chosen wholly inappropriate costumes for his dancers (I think of Tudor and MacMillan’s simplicity of costuming in their Mahler masterpieces) and he is obviously enamoured with black. However, when the background is black and the lighting moody (i.e. dark) this leads to a problem – the key must always be “Can we see all of the dancers all the time?” – strange also that the lighting generally stopped at calf level and meant that feet were often in darkness.

Études: Fernando Bufala and Erina Takahashi. Photograph: Patrick BaldwinWe cannot be surprised that Eagling’s experience of MacMillan and Song of the Earth (he was one of the great choreographer’s ‘muses’) is not something from which he can escape, and I was time and time again reminded of the latter in turns of the head and torso and use of the arms. It was the last song ‘Liebst du um Schönheit’ which saw Eagling’s talent soar, and it was in those final minutes of the ballet that he created something of true beauty and soul. It was here, too, that his inspiration of those suffering from that terrible wasting disease was also clear – the pas de trois for three bare-chested men was a flowing sequence in which the diminutive Medhi Angot, evoking at times physical weakness, inability to move or just vulnerability was lifted, supported, passed between and protected by Arionel Vargas and Zhanat Atymtayev. It was incredibly moving without ever slipping into sentimentality or bathos.

Études: FErina Takahashi. Photograph: Patrick Baldwin Études is something of a signature ballet for the ENB and this was the 744th performance by it since the work’s acquisition in 1955. Études has not been performed by the ENB for some years, partly, one suspects, because the company has simply not been good enough to deal with the ever-increasing technical demands this showpiece requires.

Critics tend to be sniffy about Études because of its rumbustious score based on Czerny’s compositions and partly because it doesn’t really mean anything – it belongs to that particular sub-genre of dance ‘the classroom ballet’, which itself has a long history, from Bournonville’s Konservatoriet (a piece that needs to be taken up by a British company) to Messerer’s Class Concert. Études is really the ne plus ultra of the genre and has been delighting audiences for many a decade – there is an undying fascination for the preparatory work of class in which dancers begin with the simplest of exercises and graduate (if it is within their abilities) to the most jaw-dropping technical feats. Harald Lander, an unjustly little known great of twentieth century ballet, created this piece for the Royal Danish Ballet in 1948 and then adapted it for the Paris Opéra Ballet in 1952, where it is still a staple of the repertoire and a huge audience favourite.

ENB cannot hope to match the stylistically homogenous Paris company – it is too much of an international rag-bag for that – but what it has done is to regain a piece central to its own history and sense of being. Josette Amiel, the renowned French ballerina, has staged the work, and her hard graft has paid off in a stylistically sharp interpretation, the corps de ballet commendably together and aware especially of arm and hand movements which are typical to Lander. The three principals were satisfying without that final ounce of bravura the piece can take: Erina Takahashi is nothing if not in control of herself, and any slight mishaps did nothing to faze her. I liked her best in the Romantic pas de deux which is the clearest signpost to the Danish nature of the work – La Sylphide looms large. The chunky Zdenek Konvalina is a new Senior Principal, and while he can master most of the bravura demands, he is neither graceful nor precise. Far better was Cesar Morales, fully in command of the petite batterie which is one of the delights of this piece (the fluttering of the feet in entrechats and the whole panoply of fast work barely off the ground is a part of ballet out of favour with nearly all modern choreographers). He is a slight dancer but has a cool and precise persona.

The ENB orchestra rose to the occasion, playing this variety of music with aplomb and enthusiasm under a committed and impassioned Gavin Sutherland. ENB has scored a notable success with this Triple Bill – the only disappointment is that lack of funds preclude it from doing more evenings like this.

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