Artistic Director Tamara Rojo's vision for English National Ballet (ENB) is to "inspire, entertain, stimulate and challenge" audiences through a mix of classic and new work. To this end, the company’s annual Choreographics programme showcases experimental ballets created by company dancers. This year's theme was the First World War, following on from the recent Lest We Forget bill at the Barbican (with choreography on the subject by Liam Scarlett, Russell Maliphant and Akram Khan).
Each dancer was given a war-themed poem and all (except Stina Quagebeur) collaborated with an emerging composer. The result was not only four dance works but three new and very well-performed but illogically-placed songs. In typical ENB style, there were also short videos of rehearsal footage and interviews to introduce each piece.
Makoto Nakamura originally planned to create an abstract work but his musical composition by David Hewson inspired an exploration of narrative. Ripple Effect commenced with a trio for Juan Rodriguez, Gilherme Menezes and Joshua McSherry-Gray. Leaning on and holding each other in jumps and balances, the sense of the three characters' cameraderie and mutual support was effectively conveyed. When two of the men fell to the floor dead and were found by their devastated colleague, the effect was therefore dramatic.
The piece concluded with a pas de deux between Menezes and Ksenia Ovysanick. As he kneeled grieving, she folded and unfolded her limbs, her partner's sorrow percolating her movements. Nakamura's choreography created a powerful image of how the experience of one individual has ramifications on their wider network of friends and family.
Fabian Reimair's We Are Free intended to explore how men are excited when they first enlist for the army, but such excitement soon turns to fear as they become aware of the realities of fighting on the frontline. What I saw onstage, however, did not convey this idea, as two pairs of dancers wearing grass-print trousers entangled themselves in bungee ropes attached to a mysterious woman at the back of the stage. Varying between tugging on the ropes and winding them around their bodies, the choreography’s meaning was a puzzle to me.
James Streeter considered the emptiness felt by people left at home during the war. In Living Memory… was a trio for two male and one female dancer, but the relationships between characters were unclear. One dancer seemed like a ghostlike incarnation of a dead man in as he predominantly echoed the choreography of the other couple, but the way he occasionally interacted with their movements left me confused.
The Choreographics highlight was undoubtedly Stina Quagebeur’s Vera. Inspired by the emotion she experienced reading Vera Brittain’s autobiography, Quagebeur’s duet showed a woman experiencing three stages of loss – shocked disbelief, questioning anger, and finally hope and moving on.
With the freedom to choose her own music, Quagebeur selected a beautiful and melodic piano score by Ivor Guerney (who was himself a soldier during the First World War), which fitted the choreography perfectly. Both well-constructed and well-performed, her piece was engaging, impassioned and moving.
Vera commenced with Nancy Osbaldeston (a wonderful dancer who leaves to join Royal Ballet Flanders shortly, which will be a great loss to ENB) standing motionless centre stage, expressing so much with just her wide eyes. Like a doll, she was lifted and dragged by partner Guilherme Menezes, as if he was begging her to come out of her shocked coma.
Osbaldeston then became a more active figure – reaching out to grab Menezes and covering her ears as if trying to protect herself from the truth of the situation. She searched the stage, extending her arms in different directions as if trying frantically to work out which way to go, while her partner walked silently towards the side of the stage. In one final attempt to seek comfort, she tried to push him metaphorically back into her life, but he grabbed her and turned her towards the empty stage as the lights went down.
The evening also included Count Down, a short solo exploring the mental and physical struggles of human existence by winner of the English National Ballet School choreography competition, Emmeline Jansen. To music by Abel Korzeniowski, Jansen interestingly alternated between large sweeping movements and small gestures such as turning her head, gazing at her hand and shaking her torso. No doubt she has a bright future in choreography ahead.
This was the first time ENB had used the Barbican Pit Theatre and I hope the last. With the stage manager's directions clearly audible and the auditorium temperature that of a sauna, the venue took away from rather than adding to the works on show. But venue aside, this year’s Choreographics was an entertaining evening with some very high-quality works showing the impressive choreographic talents of ENB dancers.
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