While the first of English National Ballet’s tributes to the Ballets Russes focused on works with a ‘nature’ theme, this second programme was more sporty – an apt topic for London 2012. First, there is Apollo, one of the most important and complex of the Olympian deities, then a game of tennis. Then there is an acrobat, and, finally, a marathon of non-stop technical classical feats. It makes an eclectic and interesting mix of differing styles, which show off diverse aspects of the company’s abilities. And there is a connection between the first and last works: a French dancer named Serge Lifar.

Dancers of English National Ballet: Apollo © Annabel Moeller
Dancers of English National Ballet: Apollo
© Annabel Moeller

Lifar played an important role in the latter years of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. He was devoted to the art of ballet and was a beautiful and charismatic dancer. He created the role of the Greek god in the one-act ballet Apollo, which was choreographed by Giorgi Balachivadze, another dancer with the Ballets Russes, who was later known as George Balanchine. This was the opening work in this programme, while the final piece was Lifar’s own creation, Suite en Blanc, a plotless work of pure dance. Lifar choreographed this in 1943 for Paris Opera Ballet, during the time of the German occupation of France, in order to show the need to maintain the company and not to see theatres close.

The introductory slow, sweeping chords of Stravinsky’s Apollo score, played by the Orchestra of English National Ballet under Gavin Sutherland, once again gave excellent support to all the dancers in this and every piece. As the curtain was lifted, a flood of light showed the beautiful paean of manhood standing centre stage dressed in white, his right arm raised in an arc, his left holding his precious lyre. The Canadian dancer Zdenek Konvalina is tall and handsome and has a strong and often forceful style, but he has a beautiful jump and crisp technique and he demonstrated the precision of Balanchine’s steps, unadorned with today’s multi-pirouettes or speedy jetés. The three Muses he summons – Anais Chalendard, Begona Cao and, as Terpsichore, Daria Klimentova – were a trio of perfection, mirror-imaging each other in steps and leg heights and showing great musicality and precision.

Vaslav Nijinsky’s ballet Jeux (‘Game’) ended up a long jump away from Diaghilev’s original conception. The impresario commissioned his favourite dancer to create a ballet about an encounter with three men and a plane crash. Nijinsky, however, decided to set it on a game of tennis with a man, to be danced by himself, and two women, The ballet was not a success and the notation was lost, so ENB’s director Wayne Eagling has choreographed a new work for this programme based on both the original and a fragment created by Kenneth MacMillan for the film Nijinsky. Eagling sets his vision in the studio, with Nijinsky lounging in his chair choreographing. The plot retains the theme of a tennis game but shows Nijinsky’s involvement in the emotions and actions of the dancers and his relationship to the women he dances with. A cameo appearance from Diaghilev at the very end has him cringing, especially when the impresario throws down a tennis ball, in exactly the way that Nijinsky’s ballet had begun.

Dmitri Gruzdyev has captured perfectly the looks and the actions of the famed Russian dancer seen in countless photographs of him, and the ballet was a beautiful mood-piece with excellent performances from all seven dancers. Eagling, who is soon to step down as director, received rousing applause when he took a bow at the end.

Le Train Bleu, choreographed by Nijinsky’s sister Bronislava Nijinska, was premiered in 1924 at the time of the Paris Olympics, to a libretto by Jean Cocteau and set in the world of fair-isle pullovers and plus-fours, with the heroine sporting an eye-patch in imitation of the tennis champion Suzanne Lenglan. The ballet included an energetic and jolly solo called Le Beau Gosse (the Handsome Young Chap), which Nijinska created for a young English man, called Anton Dolin, who later co-founded London Festival Ballet – which is now English National Ballet. The talents of young Vadim Muntagirov were put to the test here, and he sailed through the piece with athletic and energetic vigour. Dressed in a red-belted ‘woollen’ bathing suit, hair slicked down, he looked almost apologetic for the showy leaps and turns that he had to do – and which he did excellently.

Finally it was back to tutus, tarlatans and tights in Lifar’s Suite en Blanc, a showy piece that incorporated several different styles of classical ballet and gave the ENB dancers the opportunity to shine. The trio in ‘Siesta’ – Kerry Birkett, Ksenia Ovsyanick and Alison McWhinney – floated in unison in their charming segment: Yonah Acosta had poise and offered clean footwork and high leaps in his ‘Mazurka’; Erina Takahashi – her eyes dark with the longest of false lashes – gracefully danced a pristine and subdued traditional pas de deux with Konvalina and then set the stage alight with speedy piqué turns in ‘Flute’. Top accolades go to Elena Glurdjidze who performed the ‘Cigarette’ solo with eloquent assurance. She showed graceful arms and a strong and pliant back, with her whole body expressing the musicality and intonation of the charming score by Lalo. Maina Gielgud, who had personally been coached by Lifar in the ‘Cigarette’ solo when she was 16 years old, rehearsed Elena – as also the company – in this ballet and plaudits go to her too.