BWW Review: ENGLISH NATIONAL BALLET'S 70TH ANNIVERSARY GALA, London Coliseum
Galas are peculiar beasts. In attempting to please everyone, you sometimes please no one at all, but fortunately, for this nostalgic run through the rich history of English National Ballet, no one was disappointed by the varied and often emotive selection of greatest hits.
Formerly London Festival Ballet, before its renaming in 1989, English National Ballet was founded by Alicia Markova, Anton Dolin and Julian Braunsweg in August 1950. Their 70th anniversary also marks their first full year at bespoke new headquarters at London City Island as the company continues to flourish.
A lengthy and slick Act One was packed with excerpts of classical and contemporary repertoire, some more brief than others. There were heartfelt displays from Alison McWhinney, firstly as a tentative Juliet at the Capulets' ball from Nureyev's take on the Shakespeare classic, and secondly in the glittering Jewels section from MacMillan's Sleeping Beauty, where she displayed an easy musicality danced with lightness and joy.
An unquestionable highlight was Fernanda Oliveira and Junor Souza in an understated pas de deux from Three Preludes. It's a classical piece, Ben Stevenson's choreography rich in purity and requiring accomplished composure. Junor Souza was an impressively solid partner to Oliveira from across the ballet barre. Lead Principal Oliveira rarely receives recognition or opening night glory, but here she was an unflappable and eloquent force, repeatedly hitting picture-perfect positions.
Further ensemble selections included The Reel from La Sylphide. Francesca Velicu and Joseph Caley took centre stage, with able support from students from English National Ballet School, who are well drilled and performed this hearty number with confidence.
Naturally, some brave editing decisions need to be made in order for a gala like this to function. If time and funding were unrestricted, ENB have more than enough history to run a season of celebrations. Instead, some of their most vital work is reduced to a few minutes or even a motif.
Akram Khan's Giselle was introduced by a film tracking its worldwide success and a total audience of 395,000, but we saw only a few charged moments of the jumping corps de ballet flooding the stage before disappearing again. Similarly, with Khan's Dust, the centrepiece of the Lest We Forget triple bill marking the 100th anniversary of World War I, the offering felt cruelly cut. The memorable imagery of dancers joining arms to create a rippling wave as they move as one before the pulsating soundtrack subsided, and we gear changed into a trio from Christopher Bruce's Swansong.
Act One was concluded in giddy style with William Forsythe's Playlist (Track 2), a piece so gloriously joyful is should be prescribed on the NHS. A group of male dancers with sports-style tops with their names on the back filled the stage for a masterclass of bravura dancing. Endless fouettés, en masse arabesques and gravity-defying jumps all to the Lion Babe's "Impossible". The audience excitedly whooped and cheered at the indulgent set-pieces.
Act Two was reserved for a one-act tour de force. The ENB Philharmonic under the baton of Gavin Sutherland have never sounded more magnificent, nor have the corps ever looked more polished and precise in the exacting demands of Harald Lander's Etudes. This ballet was first performed by ENB in 1955 and features numerous sections depicting balletic exercises, beginning at the barre before eventually evolving into an exuberant display of virtuoso dancing that builds to a thrilling finale.
Lead Principals Jeffrey Cirio and Joseph Caley were eye-catching, always delivering exciting fireworks but with assured control. Erina Takahashi exuded delicacy but demonstrated unwavering technique - most notably in a string of fast chaîné turns that she concluded convincingly with the most still of balances en pointe.
The strength and unity of the corps was a sight to see too. Dressed in simple tutus, some black, some white, and against a bare backdrop, any lack of alignment would be highly exposed, but there was none to see.
This the first of only three performances, the London Coliseum was filled with familiar faces from the dance world both past and present. Many ex-dancers from the company were in attendance and invited to the stage to be thanked by Artistic Director Tamara Rojo in some closing words.
A unique atmosphere was palpable, and as the audience was sent out to Ravel's Bolero against a projected montage of the company's personal photographs, if you weren't already emotionally spent, you were then.
English National Ballet's 70th Anniversary Gala ran at the London Coliseum 17-18 January
Image: Laurent Liotardo