Peacock Theatre, London, UK; July 2, 2014

David Mead

Hayley Blackburn and Silas Stubbs of New English Ballet Theatre in 'Kreutzer Sonata'. Photo © Thierry Fonteyn

Hayley Blackburn and Silas Stubbs of New English Ballet Theatre in ‘Kreutzer Sonata’.
Photo © Thierry Fonteyn

Set up in 2012, New English Ballet Theatre is the brainchild of Artistic Director Karen Pilkington-Miksa, who was concerned that the major ballet companies couldn’t give places to all the talented graduates coming out of dance schools. Her aim is to provide support and opportunities for them, and for young choreographers wishing to work in a neoclassical aesthetic. She has put together an impressive patrons list that includes some of the most well-known names in British ballet. You can’t fail to admire her. It’s a brave venture to set up a new ballet company; many have tried and failed.

Essentially a pick-up company, NEBT produces one programme each year. This year’s is a bit of a mixed bag. At the Peacock, the dancers showed plenty of energy and enthusiasm, and were warmly supported by an enthusiastic audience, but technical standards were sometimes disappointing with turns and unison work in particular often looking rough around the edges.

Despite what Pilkington-Miksa says, it’s difficult to figure out just what NEBT is trying to be. In a film that preceded Andrew McNichol’s “Kreuzer Sonata”, she made great play of working in a neoclassic style, yet the ballet, the longest and easily the best of the evening, is anything but. Based a Tolstoy’s novella and danced to a collage of Beethoven’s “Violin Sonata No.9” and Janáček’s “String Quartet No.1”, all with the same title, it builds slowly but unerringly towards its dramatic and inevitable end.

Hayley Blackburn portrayed vividly the dilemmas and hopeless situation of the wife (not named in the ballet or book) trapped in an unhappy marriage, torn between her children and husband and her liking for a violinist (Troukhatchevsky in the novella). When her husband (Pozdnyshev) becomes convinced they are having an affair, and falls into a rage, there is only going to be one end. The ballet has more than a hint of “Onegin” about it, in look, and in the way McNichol tackles the narrative with clarity, the dance and drama melding as one. Barely a step is wasted in moving the story along. Also impressive the way the choreography hints at a hidden and less pleasant side to the married couple’s relationship a long time before it bubbles into the open. The final fight between Blackburn and Silas Stubbs as her husband was powerful and hard-hitting.

Emma Bailey’s costumes evoke the period well, and how refreshing to find a small company using live music, the Beethoven and Janáček being well played by the Sacconi Quartet, plus Anne Lovett on piano and Andrew Harvey on violin. All round, a seriously impressive piece.

New English Ballet Theatre in 'Tangents'.  Photo © Thierry Fonteyn

New English Ballet Theatre in ‘Tangents’.
Photo © Thierry Fonteyn

There is neo-classical dance, albeit more of a North-American rather European hue, elsewhere. Daniela Cardim Fonteyne’s “Tangents” is a classy piece for three couples. An abstract look at relationships, the choreography highlights that although there are little differences between them, in essence they are essentially the same. Quite why one of the women wears a red dress when all the other costumes are dark is unclear. It suggests difference, yet none was apparent. Fonteyne uses Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” well, each musical picture providing a different and always fitting dance picture.

“Orbital Motion” by Valentino Zucchetti (first seen in a shortened form in last year’s The Royal Ballet “Draft Works” programme) to Philip Glass’ “Violin Concerto No.1”is visually appealing and structurally complex. The designs are particularly impressive: a glorious backdrop of a photograph of nebulae taken from the Hubble Space Telescope that was full of vivid reds, yellows, blues and purples, with the dancers in similarly coloured biketards and unitards.

Zucchetti shows a keen ability to manipulate his cast of ten. Based on the orbiting of planets around the sun, his choreography is full of rotations, of dancers around dancers, and of couples around the stage. They never stop moving. The second movement is impressive. Mercedes Schindler and Joshua Barwick’s long pas de deux is filled with lifts and bodies rolling smoothly around one another. The third movement, though, too often felt like something seen before – to the same or similar music. And for all its watchability there were some very shaky tours and pirouettes from the other men, whose lifting and partnering also looked more laboured than it should have.

New English Ballet Theatre in 'Orbital Motion'.  Photo © Thierry Fonteyn

New English Ballet Theatre in ‘Orbital Motion’.
Photo © Thierry Fonteyn

“Toca”, a 7-minute duet by Érico Montes, draws on Portuguese author Eça de Querioz’s novel “The Maias” about a brother and sister, split up when young, but then meet as adults and, unaware they are siblings, fall in love. It’s a pleasant, reflective sort of piece, quite gentle in outlook. Christina Cecchini and Ludovico Di Ubaldo always face different directions initially, but as they come together there is some sense that they realise there is more between them than they understand. Ultimately, though, it says little and goes nowhere.

Royal Ballet dancer Kristen McNally has had a number of choreographic successes and is a regular contributor to “Draft Works”. Her “Mad Women” is certainly different and unexpected. It features five available young females making themselves up and generally preening themselves like birds trying to attract a mate. The best they can do turns out to be a pizza delivery guy. Some will find it all the juvenile larking around funny, but for me – no. It was also neither exciting nor fresh, and certainly not cutting edge.