Proving you don’t need to commission new work in order to be cutting-edge, English National Ballet’s new triple bill is a carefully chosen showcase of works revealing a company of dancers full of confidence and vitality. Building upon 2015’s Modern Masters, Tamara Rojo’s company is revisiting William Forsythe’s 1987 In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated, rediscovering Hans Van Manen’s 1973 Adagio Hammerklavier and giving the first performance of Pina Bausch’s The Rite of Spring by a British company. Originally shocking audiences when first performed in 1975, Bausch’s seminal work has, until now, remained the preserve of Bausch’s company Tanztheater Wuppertal and the Paris Opéra Ballet. Rojo’s choice to tackle The Rite of Spring indicates of the scale of her ambition.

Isaac Hernández and Tamara Rojo in <i>Adagio Hammerklavier</i> © Laurent Liotardo
Isaac Hernández and Tamara Rojo in Adagio Hammerklavier
© Laurent Liotardo

Hans Van Manen’s Adagio Hammerklavier is a quietly reflective piece set to the slow movement of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata no. 29 in B flat major, Op.106. Van Manen’s aim to create a ‘true’ adagio results in three couples slowly moving across the stage transitioning from pose to pose. Using neo-classical vocabulary and sparse minimalist costumes (apart from the male dancer’s incongruous silver chokers) Van Manen’s piece often seems static. While there were moments of lyrical expressiveness, Tamara Rojo’s downcast eyes and delicate footwork were touching, it struggled to generate a sense of pace or purpose.

Unfortunately, Adagio Hammerklavier follows the endless inventiveness of In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated; it couldn’t quite compete with Forsythe’s piece which, thirty years after its creation, looks freshly minted and glistening. Performed to Thom Willem’s explosive score In the Middle sees nine dancers, in minimalist leotards, tilt and swagger across the empty, dark stage. Their off-kilter movements dissolve, reconstruct and play with the classical vocabulary of traditional ballet. Their bodies seem like rubber bands rebounding across space and time. An interrogation of balance and technique; Forsythe wants to see exactly how far he can push the classically trained body. As such, it’s a challenging piece to perform. Choreography that flaunts technical mastery requires dancers that are always in complete control; at moments the speed and steps threatened to overtake. However, Laurretta Summerscales has the fluid flexibility needed; Crystal Costa attacked the technique with relish and enviable elevation, Precious Adams embodied delicacy and strength while Cesar Corrales shone; his expansive grace and precision stood apart from the rest.

Isaac Hernández: <i>In The Middle, Somewhat Elevated</i> © Laurent Liotardo
Isaac Hernández: In The Middle, Somewhat Elevated
© Laurent Liotardo

Ending the evening, female dancers in flesh-coloured slips run over a peat-covered stage; they lift their dresses to cover their faces, huddle in cowed, shivering groups as men crowd the stage to watch from the sidelines. Vulnerability and emotional exposure are central to Pina Bausch’s The Rite of Spring, an exploration of ancient rituals and sacrifice. Simplistic symbolism (menstrual red, gendered power imbalances, individualism vs social conformity) does not dampen the emotional impact of the piece. Bausch’s aim, in the words of Sabine Huschka, to “aestheticize the human body gripped by and subjected to strong emotions” remains an important and moving theatrical experience. Francesca Velicu’s performance as the ‘Chosen One’ was inspired casting: her fragile expressiveness built in desperation so she became the beating heart at the centre of this choreographed primal scream.

<i>The Rite of Spring</i> © Laurent Liotardo
The Rite of Spring
© Laurent Liotardo

ENB’s triple bill is bookended by two masters. While Bausch searched for emotional immediacy and a type of infectious theatrical exposure, Forsythe deconstructed classical vocabulary, his impact residing in conceptual dynamism. Both reinvented the language of dance in strikingly different ways. Where Bausch built her choreographic process around questions posed to her dancers, Forsythe did away with the strict hierarchy of traditional ballet companies. Something of this spirit of trust and respect is evident in ENB’s casting: young company members took on prominent roles alongside established principals. As a result, an equalitarian sense of release from muted obedience seemed to electrify the limbs of the company on Thursday night. Fostering this sense of opportunity and allowing the individual strengths of dancers to shine could mean both Tamara Rojo and British audiences have something very special to look forward to.

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