For their second show in the London Coliseum this year, English National Ballet has presented the first programme entirely designed by its new artistic director Tamara Rojo. In the line of her vision of enriching the company’s repertory with new works, while at the same time honouring the classics, the triple bill built for the occasion is a fascinating combination of old and recent masterpieces. Under the eye-catching title Ecstasy and Death, it brings together Jiří Kylián’s Petite Mort (1991), Roland Petit’s Le Jeune Homme et la Mort (1946), and Harald Lander’s Etudes (1948).

Le Jeune Homme et la Mort © David Jensen
Le Jeune Homme et la Mort
© David Jensen

The evening started with the most contemporary piece, the beautiful, serene and fluid Petite Mort. Conceived for a cast of just twelve dancers and set to two slow movements from Mozart piano concerti (the A major concerto K488 and the C major concerto K467), the ballet explores themes of sex, power and oblivion. A bare stage hosts the sparsely dressed dancers. Their bodies in harmonic motion are the main focus of attention. The carefully selected props (a big piece of silk cloth, six foils, and six dress-shaped Menina-like mannequins) add a mysterious symbolism to the rich visual imagery embedded in the movement. The production has memorable moments, such as the section for six men with foils or the humorous use of the mannequins. It also contains six sensual duets that propose six different versions of ecstasy. In this performance, it was the fifth duet, by lyrical Laurretta Summerscales and Esteban Berlanga, which more clearly conveyed the liquid and musical qualities of Kiylián’s choreography.

After this illustration of classical harmony and beauty, the destructive love and psychological depths of Le Jeune Homme et la Mort struck by their contrast. With libretto by Jean Cocteau, music by Bach (Passacaglia BWV 582, omitting the fugue), design by Georges Wakhahévitch and costumes by Karinska, it tells the story of a young painter driven to suicide by his ruthless lover. It is a ballet for just two dancers and has previously attracted many charismatic interpreters, such as Rudolf Nureyev, Mikhail Baryshnikov and Zizi Jeanmaire. Following this list of illustrious predecessors, it was not surprising that the cast for this evening put together a high-class pair of internationally acclaimed dancers. Nicolas Le Riche, the much-admired étoile of the Paris Opéra, made his first guess appearance with ENB to partner the leading ballerina of the company, Tamara Rojo. It was a real pleasure to witness the intensity and perfection brought to the roles by these two mature dancers at their best. They mastered the choreography and mesmerized the audience with their truthful rendering of seductive malice and tormented attraction.

The last piece of the evening was the perfect complement to this vehicle for two stars. Lander’s Etudes, in the repertory of the ENB since 1955, proved that ENB can also shine in demanding ballets for large casts. A showcase for virtuosity, the choreography of Etudes is inspired in the exercises that ballet dancers practice every day to strengthen their muscles. The music selected for the score matches perfectly this spirit, since Czerny’s Etudes (arranged and orchestrated by Knudåge Riisager) are a similar set of mere technical exercises to strengthen the pianists’ fingers. It might seem that this starting point can only lead to a boring combination of steps, but Etudes proves just the opposite. It produces an effect of fascination with its hypnotic repetitions, inspired patterns and increasing difficulty. It progressively propels dancers towards a spectacular end of technical fulfilment, requiring in the process refined technique, perfect synchronization and a lot of stamina. ENB’s dancers demonstrated that they possess them and that they can enjoy showcasing them. The company was led by sweet and delicate Erina Takahashi, with Vadim Muntagirov showing once more that his talents are beyond human ability and James Forbat reminding that a confident stage presence is also an excellent asset for a dancer. In all, the evening confirmed that ENB is in good shape. This unusual triple bill was an inspired, wise selection to show it.