Pandemic restrictions forced live dance into a digital offering and so it seemed a fitting yang to that yin that the return of live dance to London should translate digital back onto the stage. Five separate films were released by English National Ballet in the weeks leading up to Christmas: each film emerged out of the creative hybrid of choreographer and filmmaker and being reimagined for live performance inevitably lost the latter’s contribution. The outcome was a mixed bag with some of the more memorable filmic aspects absent from the largely bare stage, albeit releasing the choreography to speak for itself.

Take Five Blues
© Laurent Liotardo

This was the case with Stina Quagebeur’s Take Five Blues, providing yet more proof of her instinctive capacity to illustrate the joy of dance with innate musicality. Inspired by Nigel Kennedy’s violin flirtations with the Paul Desmond jazz classic, Take Five, augmented by Bach’s Vivace, Quagebeur has achieved the difficult challenge of making pure dance accessible and enjoyable for all by mixing moods and evoking spontaneity. Her eight dancers brought unalloyed enthusiasm to showcasing individual strengths, such as when Katja Khaniukova spins tightly, quickly and (apparently) effortlessly across the stage with a genuine smile of childlike joy. The strings of these individual skills were occasionally pulled together into explosions of closely harmonised unity. Quagebeur’s choreography and the ebullient glee of the dancers needed little support although Dave Richardson’s lighting designs provided an adequate substitute for the lost studio effects in Shaun James Grant’s original film.

If Quagebeur’s work was subtly improved on the stage, the design impact of Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s Laid in Earth was lessened by its transfer from the digital world through the disappearance of filmic qualities in the pared-down set design (a single, Spartan tree) and the reduced effect of Dries Van Noten’s fungi-laced costumes. This was counteracted by Catherine Backhouse’s live singing of the Lament from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas and Cherkaoui’s eclectic movement styles for two couples, including a passionate duet for Erina Takahashi and James Streeter and an extraordinary fusion of street and neoclassical dance to showcase the versatile movement qualities of Jeffrey Cirio.

Senseless Kindness
© Laurent Liotardo

In Senseless Kindness, Yuri Possokhov returned to the arts treasury of his native Russia, using Shostakovich’s Piano Trio no. 1 to make the most classical of these five pieces, loosely based upon Vasily Grossman’s epic WWII novel, Life and Fate. That narrative context will mean nothing to anyone not intimately connected to the ballet but it has provided the inspiration to enable Possokhov to create attractive sequences of lyrical and romantic ballet, especially in the long central pas de deux for Alison McWhinney and Isaac Hernandez.

Echoes is an extension of Russell Maliphant’s ongoing inquiry into the impact of lighting on bodies in movement. Since the lighting designs of Panagiotis Tomaras are integral to both the film and stage performance, it remained relatively unaltered in the transition from digital to live. The structure is delineated into two distinct parts: the first, a sinuous and challenging duet for Fernanda Oliveira and Fabian Reimair (and how good it is to see them dance together) and then a group dance for a quintet made largely anonymous by the shady lighting, so I’ll name them (Isabelle Brouwers, Eireen Evrard, Giorgio Garrett, Anjuli Hudson and Sarah Kundi).

Jolly Folly
© Laurent Liotardo

Arielle Smith’s Jolly Folly is inspired by the era of silent film comedies and the special effects were integral to the imagery on film (who could forget Eric Woolhouse appearing to ascend to a mountain summit in search of Shangri-La). But, although these effects have gone, the integrity of Smith’s work remains unimpaired, largely through the strength of her choreography, its versatility regularly reinforced through repetition; the irrepressible fast-paced zest of her eight dancers; and the high energy, Latin rhythms in the Klass Brothers’ reimagining of Tchaikovsky, Strauss and Mozart, Cuban-style. Smith dedicated Jolly Folly to the memory of Alicia Alonso (the film was released on the centenary of her birth); I discovered that in one of life’s delicious coincidences, Smith’s uncle, Gilberto, was once the legendary Cuban ballerina’s cook!      She has certainly cooked up a storm with this fun-filled fiesta, which harbours the promise of a fascinating choreographic career to come.

Although dance on film always loses a dimension, it has an added power to enthral through the director’s imaginative manipulation of the lens and expansive designs that are not always possible under stage conditions (undoubtedly made even more restrictive by covid protections). Inevitably, there are winners and losers in this transition but, when all is said and done, there can never be an adequate substitute for dance seen live on stage. The final lighting cue on Jolly Folly didn’t quite catch the helter-skelter dash for the closing tableau. For film, inevitably that ending would have called for another take, but there was something endearingly real about that off-kilter finale that makes live theatre so refreshingly uncertain.