English National Ballet’s Voices of America – “superlative exuberance and contagious vitality”

Crystal Costa in Fantastic Beings by Aszure Barton © Laurent Liotardo

English National Ballet ‘Voices of America’ presents a sensational programme packed with superlative exuberance and contagious vitality, featuring works by acclaimed choreographers – William Forsythe, Jerome Robbins and Aszure Barton – each with distinct style, but all united by the originality of American-style neo-classical ballet.

Aszure Barton’s Fantastic Beings opens the evening with an imaginary world of enchanting creatures, in a metamorphosis of different forms.

As soon as Mason Bates’s playful score kicks in, performed live by English National Ballet Philharmonic Orchestra, the audience is immediately transported into a magical ambience emphasised by a cascade of glitter flakes in the background, that look like a swarm of fireflies.

20 dancers move with exquisite grace through the tough, fast-paced sequences of jumps and turns, alternating large group phrases and duets executed in canon.

Crystal Costa in Fantastic Beings by Aszure Barton © Laurent Liotardo
Crystal Costa in Fantastic Beings by Aszure Barton © Laurent Liotardo

Adorned with impressive vitality, their sharp gestures and slight flickering of the hands make them look like tiny insects erratically flying around, or little frogs when bowing in grand plié with wide arms and palms flat on the floor.

Even though the movement vocabulary draws from classical style, there’s a great deal of bouncing and balancing on heels. Ape-like crawling creatures cut across the stage every now and then, until they all assume that form and turn up in a long black hairy costume that flutters and wobbles at every twist and jump, offering a sense of incredible lightness. It’s audacious and beautiful!

The work that follows, Approximate Sonata 2016 by William Forsythe, is delightfully original. Created in 1996 and reworked for Paris Opera Ballet, it consists of a series of pas de deux that break the rules of classical ballet through the use of unconventional setting and electronic music, but still maintaining a strong classical flavour in the gestures.

Set in an undefined background that might seem a bus stop or a suburban corner, Forsythe’s contemporary attitude is visible also in the outfits – bright blue trousers with fuchsia vests for men, and sleek black leotards for women.

Jurgita Dronina and Isaac Hernandez in Approximate Sonata 2016 by William-Forsythe
Jurgita Dronina and Isaac Hernandez in Approximate Sonata 2016 by William-Forsythe

The minimalist score by Thom Willems is barely perceptible, often made of light scratches or processed sounds, but it is not perceived as a negative void as all dancers’ spectacular prowess is enough to fill the stage.

A captivating chemistry bonds the four couples that perform dynamic combinations of articulated gestures and lyrical moves, pulling and turning, holding together and letting go. The overall performance feels more like a rehearsal, as all dancers seem so relaxed and natural, with the astounding ability to make all the moves look effortless.

Predatory instinct and animal desire converge in Jerome Robbins’ The Cage, a piece from 1951 that aimed to shock the audience by depicting a female insect chasing and killing her male partners, like a mantis.

Set to Stravinsky’s Concerto in D for string orchestra, The Cage opens with a breathtaking ensemble of 12 female insects and their Queen introducing the novice to the ritual.

English National Ballet in The Cage by Jerome Robbins © Laurent Liotardo
English National Ballet in The Cage by Jerome Robbins © Laurent Liotardo

Flexible limbs and spines, spidery movements and explosive vitality outline the collective piece, followed by the terrifically dramatic novice’s short solo. When the male counterparts appear, they are forced into a restless sequence of dragging and falling, culminating in their killing.

The classical movement vocabulary is given an original twist in this subversion of male-female roles, as male dancers are lifted and carried around as the powerful women take-over.

The evening terminates with the standout piece everybody was looking for – the world premiere of Playlist (Track 1,2) Forsythe’s new work created exclusively for the English National Ballet. It’s a real burst of excellent technique and virtuosity!

Set to rhythm of house and neo-soul music, 12 male dancers unleash an exhilarating collective sequences of incredible jumps and endless pirouettes alternated with mind-blowing short solos.

It looks like a clubbing night for a rugby team, since everyone is wearing blue tights and red t-shirts with their name on the back. Playlist (Track 1,2) is brief but intense, with an overwhelming vitality that triggers a standing ovation from the audience.

Reviewed at Sadler’s Wells on 12 April 2018

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