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Posted on April 11, 2022

English National Ballet dancers in Playlist EP for The Forsythe Evening c Laurent Liotardo 2

Pictured: English National Ballet in Playlist (EP). Photograph by Laurent Liotardo.

For every person who thinks ballet means fairytales, there’s another who’s hunting for narratives steeped in sex and another who prefers movement stripped of drama and decoration. Over time, the classical ballet vocabulary has evolved into a flexible language that can satisfy them all.

The new creations I’ve seen in recent weeks spoke that language in strikingly different ways and for different purposes. Making a new one-act work for The Royal Ballet, titled The Weathering, Kyle Abraham followed Wayne McGregor’s choreographic model, flooding the stage with a welter of complicated movement that itself obscured his intentions.

Though his background lies in contemporary dance and hip hop, his attraction to ballet and the fact that he has done his homework meet in The Weathering. Among the busily shrugging shoulders and snaking arms, recognisable steps – saut de basque, mazurka, gargouillade – surface repeatedly. Unison ensembles and close canons form and reform at a relentless pace, quickly shaped and quickly abandoned, and in their rush to squeeze all the steps into 35 minutes, on opening night the 11 dancers often left them unfinished.

Pictured: The Royal Ballet in The Weathering. 1 – Fumi Kaneko. 2 – Joshua Junker. 3 – Calvin Richardson. 4 – Liam Boswell. Photographs by Andrej Uspenski, courtesy of the Royal Opera House.

Who could blame them? The ballet hints at intimacy and loss, yet every reflective solo or ruminative duet shattered with the intrusive arrival of others and another avalanche of steps. Years ago, you could hear this company’s men counting aloud as they performed Kenneth MacMillan’s The Rite of Spring, and Abraham’s dancers must have felt equally overwhelmed by his demands. Judicious editing would have provided a clearer view of his talent and their ability.

For its 20th anniversary, Ballet Black’s founder and director, Cassa Pancho, choreographed a larky piece, Say It Loud, that encapsulates the company’s distinguished history. Patched together from social media comments, reviews and public feedback, an accompanying voiceover launches the upbeat work with a challenge: “What’s the point of Ballet Black? Black people want Bob Marley, not ballet.”

To music ranging from Steve Reich to Lord Kitchener’s calypso and the Soweto Gospel Choir, the eight dancers respond by proudly acknowledging their heritage and their desire to confront public attitudes. Their individual qualities permeated the opening solos, defining them as artists who will never fit a fixed template, and each successive sequence revealed another facet of their identity.

Pictured: Ballet Black in Say It Loud. Photographs by Bill Cooper.

Slipping among roaming spotlights, a man identified “how we function, cool when it’s critical.” A women’s trio pinpointed the joy of shared creativity – in 20 years, the company has accumulated a repertory of 50 works by 37 different choreographers – and in response to the spoken query “Why do we love ballet?” a sweet, romantic pas de deux answered, “Because ballet loves us back.”

Without overt defiance, the cast also proved, in case anyone still doubted it, that classical ballet and Black performers need not be strangers. Sensitively displayed in ample light – thank you, David Plater – and bold, bright colours, each dancer’s eager attack and crisp technique became a political statement supporting expressive freedom and art’s inclusive embrace.

Without an axe to grind and after deconstructing dance aplenty in the past, William Forsythe has returned to the basic steps that, for most people, define ballet. “What I did was put them in novel arrangements, taking them out of their usual sequences,” he commented in the Sadler’s Wells programme. “That’s how I changed the conversation.” 

Pictured: 1 – English National Ballet’s Rhys Antoni Yeomans in Blake Works II. 2 – Precious Adams and James Streeter in Playlist (EP). 3 – Shiori Kase and Joseph Caley in Playlist (EP). Photographs by Laurent Liotardo.

Blake Works, set to James Blake’s songs, and Playlist (EP), an expansion of Playlist (Track,1, 2) which he made for English National Ballet (ENB) in 2018 to soul music and rhythm and blues, come across as if classroom combinations had married a Rubik’s Cube. Far from the aggressive distortions of Forsythe’s In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated, these pieces celebrate simple moves such as tendus and port de bras as they reinvent themselves with every shift of direction, height and speed.

Watching simplicity bloom into sophisticated complexity felt like watching architecture come to life; the sturdy underpinning of ballet grew streamlined and acquired character. Dancers require personality to realise these dances, plus energy, stamina and focus, and ENB’s artists, particularly the men, pounced on the material as if they’d been waiting for it a long time.

At the end of Blake Works, a pas de deux concludes with the couple side by side, facing front with their feet parallel. On the last note, both swing into tendu, croisé back, with their arms curved. Nature becomes art in one count. George Balanchine showed us the same thing in the first section of Serenade, but only a few others, like Forsythe, are so intrigued by that distinction that they present it to the public.

 

Barbara Newman’s books about ballet include Grace under Pressure; The Illustrated Book of Ballet Stories for children; a volume of interviews, Striking a Balance, and its follow-up, Never Far from Dancing. She has written for Dancing Times since 1984 and served as the dance critic for Country Life from 1990 to 2016. She archives all her work at http://barbaranewmandance.net

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