Going from strength to strength under the leadership of Tamara Rojo, English National Ballet presents Sir Kenneth MacMillan's Song of the Earth and Bournonville's La Sylphide this autumn. Acting upon Kevin O’Hare’s initiative, the UK’s leading ballet companies are coming together to celebrate MacMillan’s outstanding legacy. As 2017 marks 25 years since the choreographer’s death, the programmes presented both at the Royal Opera House and at other venues around the UK provide an opportunity to reflect on just how great Sir Kenneth’s contribution was to the development of British ballet, and to the art form in general. It’s also a unique occasion to experience some of his less performed one act ballets.

One of his masterpieces, Song of the Earth, features at the heart of the celebrations. It will be performed by English National Ballet for the first time and the company will dance it both in London and on tour. Set to Gustav Mahler’s haunting song cycle of the same name (Das Lied von der Erde, 1908-09), MacMillan’s Song of the Earth is, for English National Ballet’s Artistic Director Tamara Rojo, a “jewel” of the ballet repertoire. Thought to have been inspired by Hans Bethge’s translations of ancient Chinese poems on stages and aspects of life (Die chinesische Flöte) and motivated, in part, by the hardship the composer experienced in the years leading to its composition – losing the directorship of the Vienna Court Opera, the passing of his daughter, and a congenital heart defect diagnosis – Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde is a seven-song meditation on the transient nature of life. In MacMillan’s ballet, music, dance and poetry (sung, as in Mahler’s original composition, by a tenor and an alto on stage) come together to embody our experience of life and shared, impending mortality.

Whilst MacMillan’s full length ballets (Romeo and Juliet, the Sleeping Beauty, Anastasia, Manon, Mayerling) all feature strong characters and a highly dramatic narrative, Song of the Earth is evocative and restrained. A man and a woman interact with each other and share the stage with a mysterious messenger – of death, most likely, but possibly also of time. This mysterious figure looms over the couple, and over their experience of life, just as death looms over all of our lives. Whilst the piece’s mood is one of reflection and sorrow, the ballet also expresses moments of joy and pleasure through some of the songs, but these emotions are not projected in an outwards, direct expression to the audience. Rather, the emotional tension of the piece lies in the dancers’ personal, inner and intimate experience of the work, of its steps, its notes and its vibrations. 

Tamara Rojo, who performed Song of the Earth whilst a dancer with the Royal Ballet recalls having a singular, profound connection with the work. In a recent discussion with Deborah MacMillan, moderated by Sarah Crompton, she vividly recalls feeling naked onstage, with nowhere to hide who she was. The bare stage, the exposing costumes (pale leotards and tights), the essence and of course the very matter of the choreography demand that the dancers do not act out, but rather, that they truly be on stage. Rojo also explains that she feels MacMillan, even in his dramatic ballets, always ends up “stripping all the artifice out of the roles [the female roles at least] and that the dancers have to really open up” and be themselves on stage. Song of the Earth asks of its dancers that they go through an emotional voyage on stage akin to our experience of life, stimulating and engaging the audience with them along the way, as we reflect on our own journey. It is, in part, this exposure of the people (rather than the dancers) on stage that makes MacMillan’s ballets so vibrant, so full of life, and so meaningful on stage. It’s also a physical journey, as the choreography of Song of the Earth is empowered by the communion of the singers and the dancers on stage, with voice and movement carrying each other.Demanding of the dancers that they move as large and big as the music is grand whilst relying solely on their bodies moving though the steps to convey their emotions, Mahler’s expansive score further exalts the dance, creating a truly unique multi sensorial experience for the audience.

English National Ballet will perform Song of the Earth twice at the Royal Opera House this Autumn, in a double bill with MacMillan’s final work, The Judas Tree, performed by the Royal Ballet. On tour, Song of the Earth is paired with a revival of Auguste Bournonville’s one act ballet La Sylphide, set on English National Ballet by leading experts of the Bournonville style Eva Kloborg (former dancer of the Royal Danish Ballet and ballet master in the Bournonville style) and Frank Andersen (former dancer and twice artistic director of the Royal Danish Ballet). The epitome of the Romantic style, choreographically and culturally, La Sylphide exposes the inner tension of a man, James, set to marry his long term love Effy, but secretly attracted by the spirit of an ethereal sylph. Desires, infatuation and dreams are explored through the dance, with care to present the work in its authentic beauty. Song of the Earth / La Sylphide tours to Manchester and Milton Keynes in October, and opens at the London Coliseum in January 2018.


Article sponsored by English National Ballet