The gutsy decision to hold this wide-ranging anniversary gala at the end of a long winter season at the London Coliseum (often with two full-length ballets per day) was rewarded with a mix of rousing exhilaration and high sentiment that easily matched the importance of the celebration. The whole event was thoughtfully curated and directed with an eye for achieving both a great sense of theatre and an invigorating momentum.

Erina Takahashi and James Forbat in Harald Lander's Etudes
© Laurent Liotardo

The dance was inevitably accompanied by plenty of film, produced and directed by Dominic Best, including a poignant reminder of the many contributors to the company’s success who have not survived to participate in this 70th anniversary. Thankfully, two of the founding members of London Festival Ballet (English National Ballet’s original name) – Anita Landa and Pamela Hart – were able to join the company on stage to commemorate this important milestone in its history. The filmed segments were neatly interposed with sixteen danced divertissements in Act 1: frankly, this was more than enough dance for a whole gala but the transitions between pieces were so slick that the momentum carried the programme along: if ever there was a case of never mind the quantity feel the quality, then this was it.

Sergio Bernal in Le Tricorne
© Laurent Liotardo

The gala opened in the best way possible with Sergio Bernal’s performance of the farruca from Antonio Ruiz Soler’s The Three-Cornered-Hat. I hesitate to say that any dance is perfect but Bernal’s performance appeared both flawless and exciting. Antonio el Bailarín was a regular visitor to the UK and this dance was a trademark of his theatrical flamenco. This opening not only gave a nod to the Spanish nationality of the current artistic director but also reflected the company’s origins in the founding partnership of Anton Dolin and Alicia Markova and their associations with the Ballets Russes, since Léonide Massine had also choreographed this work for Diaghilev, in 1919.

Bernal handed the stage over to the ENB corps – led by Erina Takahashi and Fabian Reimair – in the wave section from Akram Khan’s Dust, reviving memories of that groundbreaking performance at Glastonbury and then onto Christopher Bruce’s fluid Swansong trio by Jeffrey Cirio, James Streeter and Matthew Astley. The future was represented by a charming performance of Richard Bermange’s …Of What’s to Come by the ENB Youth Company leading straight into an isolated section from Balanchine’s Apollo with Francesco Gabriele Frola delivering the second solo.

English National Ballet performing Dust by Akram Khan
© Ian Gavan

Rudolf Nureyev occupied an important slice of the company’s history and his production of Romeo and Juliet has been performed 400 times between 1977 and 2017 (I know this due to the fullness of data contained in an excellent gala programme). The Dance of the Knights was performed with Alison McWhinney as Juliet, Skyler Martin as Paris and Dominic Hickie as Lord Capulet (his final performance as guest character artist, having originally joined ENB in 1980). Then it was the turn of the ENB School to dance the Migration sequence from Akram Khan’s Giselle leading directly to the gorgeous La Llorona pas de deux from Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s Broken Wings, danced by Tamara Rojo as Frida Kahlo alongside Reimair as Diego Rivera. Precious Adams overcame an early slip to give a quicksilver and charismatic performance of the Fascinatin’ Rhythm solo from Balanchine’s Who Cares?

Fabian Reimair and Tamara Rojo in Annabelle Lopez Ochoa's Broken Wings
© Laurent Liotardo

August Bournoville’s La Sylphide has been performed over 150 times in four iterations, since 1970, and a group of ENB School students supported Francesca Velicu, Joseph Caley and Joshua McSherry-Gray in an arresting reminder of those performances. McWhinney and Daniel McCormick led a small group in an excerpt from Kenneth MacMillan’s The Sleeping Beauty, followed by an enigmatic duet at the barre from Ben Stevenson’s Three Preludes, featuring Fernanda Oliveira and Junor Souza (certainly a highlight). Rojo returned in one of her trademark roles as Carmen in Roland Petit’s sexy choreography, danced with Frola as José. This was followed by the mazurka from Ronald Hynd’s seminal production of Coppélia (424 performances since 1985) with Shiori Kase as Swanilda and Brooklyn Mack as Franz and the romantic duet of The Man I Love from Derek Deane’s Strictly Gershwin danced by Takahashi and Isaac Hernandez. This long unbroken sequence of dance was brought to an ebullient end with the all-male flash of William Forsythe’s Playlist (Track 2).

Francesco Gabriele Frola and Tamara Rojo in Roland Petit's Carmen
© Laurent Liotardo

Whew! What a roller-coaster of diverse dance! It is hard to know what could have been cut and it all interlaced very well with a special tribute going to the ENB Philharmonic under the direction of Gavin Sutherland for their hell-for-leather dash through this musical potpourri. Casting was a surprise with several dancers reappearing for more than one turn in the spotlight, whilst other popular lead soloists were not featured at all.

Gabriele Frola and Artists of ENB in Harald Lander's Etudes
© Laurent Liotardo

The whole of the second half was taken up by a performance of Harald Lander’s Etudes, which the company has performed an astonishing 734 times since 1955. This accelerating choreography themed around ballet technique and the structure of a class was a suitably rousing finale, danced with great determination and precision by both principals and corps de ballet. Well done to ENB for celebrating their 70th anniversary in such style.