English National Ballet brought its truncated live season to a close with a gala in all but name, bearing extracts from nine works in the company repertoire.   ENB has rightly earned a nomination in the 2020 National Dance Awards for the versatility of its response to the pandemic and one cannot overstate just how uplifting it is to see these excellent dancers back on the stage for their second programme in three weeks, following the Reunion bill at Sadler’s Wells. It has to be said that the Royal Festival Hall is not the best of venues for ballet, particularly with the orchestra being at the same level as the front rows of seats. I found my attention frequently distracted by the musicians in front of the dancers.

Erina Takahashi and James Streeter in Akram Khan's Dust
© Laurent Liotardo

This Solstice programme – so-called because it runs either side of the Summer solstice – was a mixed bag of old and new, classical and neoclassical; well curated in the ebb and flow of material within a single act. The lack of an interval was clearly for reasons of Covid restrictions but then half a gala was clearly better than none!

My highlights came in the four newest creations. Erina Takahashi and James Streeter have cornered the market in performing the concluding duet from Akram Khan’s mighty Dust. The heightened emotion that they create in this allegory of loss, the last of the ballet’s three sections, is stirring stuff although I long to see the whole work again since the duet is even stronger when it builds out of the poignant sections that come before. Listening to the 1916 recording of Sergeant Edward Dwyer’s voice singing “We’re here because, we’re here because” to the tune of Auld Lang Syne always brings goosebumps, not least because this recipient of the Victoria Cross died on the battlefield, aged just twenty, in the same year as making this recording. A silver lining in being seated so close to the orchestra was to appreciate the way in which Jocelyn Pook’s extraordinary composition builds in intensity throughout the duet.

Katja Khaniukova and Fabian Reimair in Annabelle Lopez Ochoa's Broken Wings
© Laurent Liotardo

The second gem came in another duet extracted from a single act ballet and danced to a vintage recording: La Llorona from Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s Broken Wings. Chavela Vargas' anguished song about the weeping woman is a counter-intuitive but nonetheless strangely perfect accompaniment to this flirtatious duet that signifies the courtship of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. Katja Khaniukova won the 2019 NDA for Outstanding Performance for her interpretation of Kahlo and it was a huge pleasure to see her don the monobrow once more, dancing alongside Fabian Reimair as Rivera. This is another duet that one can never tire of seeing (even allowing for the fact that Rivera was a thoroughly nasty misogynist and not the playful buffoon portrayed here)!

Hollow is the most recent work in the programme, created by Stina Quagebeur for the Dancing Nation Festival presented by Sadler’s Wells and BBC Arts, earlier this year, so this was its world premiere live onstage. It’s a topical work about dealing with depression with one partner lost in this struggle and the other powerless to help and, respectively, Emily Suzuki and Victor Prigent gave exceptionally powerful performances in this sensitively portrayal of mental health. 

Victor Prigent and Emily Suzuki in Stina Quagebeur's Hollow
© Laurent Liotardo

The programme had opened with the wedding extracts from Ronald Hynd’s Coppélia, led charmingly by Fernanda Oliveira and Jeffrey Cirio as Swanilda and Franz, and there was a reprise of Ben Stevenson’s enigmatic barre-based duet, Three Preludes, which had been a highlight of the company’s 70th anniversary gala, danced again by Junor Souza, this time accompanying the imposing Emma Hawes.   

More classicism came in the Jewels extract from The Sleeping Beauty and the ubiquitous Black Swan pas de deux, which was expertly danced by Isaac Hernández on fine form, supporting Natascha Mair (who debuted as Odette/Odile in Turkey not long before the first lockdown, followed by another performance a few weeks’ later, at the Kremlin, with Hernandez). She showed great potential to develop a strong interpretation of Odile and I would love to see her interpretation of the White Swan. 

English National Ballet in William Forsythe's Playlist (Track 1, 2)
© Bill Cooper

There is, and possibly never will be, a better way to end a mixed programme than with William Forsythe’s Playlist (Track 1,2), an absolute blast of male virtuosity performed by a dozen of the ENB retinue to two upbeat tracks of house music. The guys wear their surnames on their shirt backs perhaps to signify the athleticism and teamwork of the piece. It is hard to pick anyone out for special mention but Rhys Antoni Yeomans seemed always to be front and centre. This great fun was guaranteed to send the audience home with a spring in our step (even in the torrential rain that greeted us at the exit)!