Posted on June 9, 2021
There we were, back at Sadler’s Wells, and all it took to provoke a sustained ovation were the words, “Welcome to this evening’s performance of English National Ballet.” Several live and recorded speeches later, the curtain rose on the first of the five dances that filled the next 80 minutes (no interval, no bar, everyone masked in socially distanced seating). Each was introduced by a short film of the dancers and choreographer, either in the rehearsal studio or speaking directly to the camera about the piece we were about to see.
All five works had been made for streaming during the past year of lockdown, but having never seen them on the screen, I arrived with no preconceptions, just as you ordinarily would for choreography freshly created for the stage. Anticipating only the pleasure of having the dancers right in front of me, essentially in the same room, I hadn’t expected to find persistent echoes of streaming coming between us.
For a long time, theatrical dance explained itself. Certain people performed it, others watched it and drew their own conclusions from what they saw about its intent. Often that’s still the case, but as dance reached a wider public through televison, viewers venturing into the theatre to see it live for the first time may have wanted a few pointers. Programme synopses grew more detailed, and feature articles by or about the choreographers, designers and composers provided newcomers with useful information and a degree of confidence.
Photographs: Dancers of English National Ballet in Jolly Folly, Laid in Earth, Echoes, and Take Five Blues. Photographs by Laurent Liotardo.
To minimise hand-to-hand contact while COVID remains a threat, Sadler’s Wells has done away with printed programmes, and English National Ballet (ENB) offered the recorded introductions in their stead. Though behind-the-scenes footage is always popular and the films supplied a sensible solution for a sticky problem, they repeatedly nudged the performance back to the screen we’re supposedly tired of watching. At home, you might applaud dancers who can’t appreciate your enthusiasm, but it’s disconcerting to hear that in a theatre when the artists are behind the curtain, waiting, after months of waiting, to forge immediate connections with a live audience.
As eager to perform as we were to see them, ENB’s dancers looked better than ever. Buoyant, precise and musically alert, they attacked Stina Quagebeur’s Take Five Blues, an ambitious fusion of jazz and classical impulses, as if they’d just broken out of prison, sailing with confidence and clarity on its propulsive rhythms. Arielle Smith’s Jolly Folly gave them a rare opportunity to transform movement into comedy, which they evidently enjoyed even more. Having spent the last two years working with Matthew Bourne, Smith has absorbed his characteristic use of small tight groups, surprising twists of direction and purpose, and deadpan satire. At 32, she is an experienced pro who has choreographed for Birmingham Royal Ballet, Rambert and the Rugby World Cup, and this witty piece deserves a long and happy future.
Spreading their infinite possibilities over live stage performances, digital effects and video can inadvertently conceal a dance rather than enhancing it. On this programme, their dominating presence in Russell Maliphant’s Echoes relegated his work to the shadows. The video artist Panagiotis Tomaras, who also lit the piece, muffled the seven dancers in a flurry of white wriggling shapes, projected downward onto a black floor, and all but drowned them in rolling waves of darkness.
Leaving the theatre, I heard comments about the dance that referred only to the lighting. Surely Maliphant had something else in mind.
Main photograph: English National Ballet in Jolly Folly. Photograph by Laurent Liotardo.