Tamara Rojo and Max Westwell in Jiří Kylián’s 'Petite Mort'.  Photo © ASH

Tamara Rojo and Max Westwell in Jiří Kylián’s ‘Petite Mort’.
Photo © ASH

English National Ballet: Modern Masters
(Petite Mort, Spring and Fall, In the Middle Somewhat Elevated)
Sadler’s Wells, London, UK; March 10, 2015

Charlotte Kasner

There is a danger in programmes like this that there is more pleasure in the alliteration than in appears on stage, but in Kylián, Forsythe and Neumeier, the title of master would seem justified, certainly if the opening night performance is anything to go by.

Jiří Kylián’s “Petite Mort” never ceases to delight. The danger of the opening gives way to the wit of the black dress cut outs which always raises an appreciative giggle. He has shown us the real women behind the whalebone and now they wear their skirts as a mask, the public facade behind the private being.

As ever, the rapiers seemed to be under perfect control although I’m sure that it feels different on stage! There is a moment at the beginning where the men kick them into a rotation and somehow they stop at ten minutes to ten, propelled by
just the right amount of momentum.

There are so many layers of meaning in “Petite Mort” that it almost seems a bonus to get great choreography too. Kylián always produces a wonderful sense of effortless flow that the ending of the work is a surprise. Dancers work at every angle in every plane with seamless partnering. Mozart’s music reminds us that the eighteenth century was no stranger to contradictions and that the beauty is undercut by dirt that is both metaphorical and literal. “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” made abstract.

Neumeier’s “Spring and Fall” received its UK premier here and how lucky we are to have seen this piece. It is a wistful work with some thoughtful pas de deux interspersed between the ensembles. Spring brings out an element of competition amongst the men as the testosterone rises with the sap. There is lovely moment where, losing a competition, one curls into a ball and rolls into the wings from the middle of the stage like a woodlouse drawing in the defences, whilst his colleagues remain to slug it out.

'Petite Mort' (foreground James Forbat, rear Max Westwell). Photo © ASH

‘Petite Mort’ (foreground James Forbat, rear Max Westwell). Photo © ASH

There is the ever-present tinge of sadness as the work rolls on into the final sections, the soloists imbuing their dancing with the knowledge of mortality as the ensemble come and go. One can almost hear J Alfred Prufrock musing on life and death. The dance vocabulary pushes the classical without ever going beyond the acceptable into the vulgar and ENB made it look effortless.

“In The Middle Somewhat Elevated” brings us back to the more familiar, and there is no doubt that it went down well, although it would not make it onto my Desert Island. It seems over-long, and the relentless, thumping score sounded dated. It is a ‘look at me’ piece that, with the hyper-extensions that Sylvie Guillem could produce provided fireworks but otherwise is all technique with no substance. This is not to criticise the dancing, which was faultless and energetic, but, unlike the maturity of “Spring and Fall”, it seems like a noisy teenager saying “Ya boo sucks” to the world and I found it boring.

The lighting was notably good throughout. Peach light alternating with shadows in “Petite Mort”, pastels washes in “Spring and Fall” and the subtly lit suspended cherries in “In The Middle Somewhat Elevated”. What a pleasant change to be able to see the dancers instead of everything taking place in black costumes on a black floor against a dimly lit background.

The ENB Philharmonic have never sounded so good and always respond well under the baton of the irrepressible Gavin Sutherland. They were on fire on Sunday at the Russian Icons gala and no less so in the Mozart and Dvorak. Anyone still under the misapprehension that playing for ballet is a second-rate job would do well to pay attention to this ensemble. Not only do they produce fine nuanced tones, they accommodate dancers without any
apparent distortion to the composer’s symphonic intentions.

The Company seemed to enjoy themselves as much as the audience and everything was danced with gusto and panache. Curtain calls were well deserved and this bodes well for the exciting programmes coming up from ENB.

English National Ballet’s “Modern Masters” is at Sadler’s Wells (www.sadlerswells.com) to March 15.