ENB’s highly anticipated triple bill of works by the French master craftsman Roland Petit was tinged with sadness when the news of his death was announced on July 10th at the age of 87. He had hoped to oversee the rehearsals and attend the UK premiere. Instead, however, the London season became a powerful tribute to him, one of the greatest choreographers of the 20th century. Beloved by dancers world wide, his unique vision of classical ballet broke through strict boundaries and presented the art with cutting edged technique, outstanding theatricality, a sexual frankness that often bordered on the erotic, and blended them together with veritable French chic. The fact that the three ballets on show in London have rarely been seen in the UK added to the excitement of the evening and English National Ballet and its orchestra did them proud.

L’Arlesienne is based on the short story and play by Alphonse Daudet and tells of a young man, Frederi, on his wedding day unable to forget a woman from Arles he has met. The ballet follows his descent into madness in front of his bride and local peasants until he, finally beaten by the invisible demons, leaps through a window to his death. The work reminds of the Ballets Russes’ production of Les Noces with its folkloric dances and rituals in the peasants’ simple but effective chain dancing, holding hands and moving in unison as they follow the formal and stiff customs of a Provencal wedding day. Seeing her husband suffering, Vivette takes command of the pas de deux and tries to steer him back to reality but to no avail, and he is finally left alone making ever wider circles until he hurls himself through the open window. The leading male role demands virtuosity and great strength – exaggerated stretches ending in deep plies, sharp precise technique and much dramatic action -- and Estaban Berlanga pulled out all stops in his marathon debut as Frederi. The petite Erina Takahashi’s Vivette was a gentle, reserved young thing unable to comprehend the turmoil of her lover. She danced with soft charm and acceptance but lacked any depth of passion.

For Yonah Acosta, the evening was a triumph. Nephew of superstar Carlos Acosta, this young Cuban joined the company earlier in the year and his role as the Young Man in Le Jeune Homme et le Mort gave him the opportunity to show what magic he has to offer. And that is certainly a lot. In blue hillbilly overalls, he soared across the stage, performing breath-taking high triple turns and adeptly leaping over wooden chairs and tables with power and control. His performance was electric both physically and dramatically. This is yet another ballet with a tragic ending due to feminine wiles. The curtain rises on a young painter lying on a crumpled bed in his Parisian attic studio smoking as he awaits his lover. She finally appears wearing a startling canary yellow dress, black straight wig and black gloves, but instead of passion, she teases and torments him, cruelly hurting him physically and emotionally. Anais Chalendard, displaying her natural French chic, played the aloof cold and caustic woman, puffing smoke in his face and dominating his every passion with callousness and biting technique. She finally pulls down a noose and completely mesmerized by her, he hangs himself, only to be then led away by her as Death, (now in dramatic flowing white gown, red long gloves and skull mask) over the rooftops of Paris.

The final piece was a work that was premiered to ecstatic (though some were shocked), audiences in London in 1949 with Petit and his wife Zizi Jeanmaire in the lead roles. His Carmen is a passionate and erotic encapsulation of Bizet’s opera and certainly the sexual frankness had tremendous impact on those early viewers—it is still hot stuff today. Jeanmaire as Carmen was sensational not only for her dancing but also for the fact that she had cropped her hair in a gamin style when ballerinas were still wearing buns, and flaunted herself like a real prostitute, something the ENB dancers are still learning how to do. While there was intensity in their dancing, the ‘whores’ here despite their matted hair and tatty dresses, were somewhat wholesome creatures and need to outwardly display an inner seediness along with their carefully placed ‘suggestive’ poses. They are just too pretty and fresh. The Toreador (James Streeter) was wonderfully camp in his yellow gaiters and bull-fighting posturing, and Juan Rodriquez and Adela Ramirez bounded with energy and amusement in their solos and duets as the leading bandits.

With dramatic clarity in his characterization, Fabian Reimair made a sleek and slim Don Jose. He possesses a high strong jump and sharp attack and tackled the more challenging Petit steps, accents and flamenco tautness with success. There was good chemistry between him and Begoña Cao as Carmen and the famous (infamous?) erotic bedroom pas de deux was carefully executed yet showed the wild abandon of their passions. The final moments of the ballet when in tormented jealousy he kills her, was heartfelt and powerful. As Carmen, Begoña embodies all the attributes need for the role—long legs, flexible body, cropped hair, flashing eyes that drew the men to her—and a technique filled with needlepoint sharp pique and staccato steps, whirling turns and high flying leaps across the stage. She acted well but still could dig a little deeper in the future to show the passionate erotic and sensual abandon that the French are able to do. I feel sure that Petit would have approved of the evening.