Scottish Ballet’s brief trip south of the border - just two performances - not only brought a company of vital athletic dancers to the capital but also chose the occasion to announce its new artistic director. The amiable young Christopher Hampson will take over the reins next season from Ashley Page whose eleven years reign has boosted the company’s visibility and prestige, and produced some excellent results.

Sophie Martin and Erik Cavallari © Andrew Ross
Sophie Martin and Erik Cavallari
© Andrew Ross

On opening night, a beaming Hampson was there in the audience to see his prospective company perform. The programme they offered gave plenty of opportunity to note each and every dancer, and there is certainly much talent to admire. The double bill was premiered by Scottish Ballet at the Edinburgh Festival this past summer, and has just returned from a successful tour to the States. And there couldn’t have been two more diverse works.

If it’s speedy thrills you’re after, then Jorma Elo’s Kings 2 Ends is for you. The Finnish choreographer combines two musical disciplines from different eras - that of Steve Reich’s 2008 Pulitzer Prize winning Double Sextet and 18th century Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s haunting Violin Concerto no.1, to which he adds a couple of moments where the action is done in complete silence and then lets loose fourteen seemingly tireless dancers who careen at break-neck speed while leaping and turning. This new work especially created on the company, tests not only the stamina but also the agility of them all. The first part done to Reich’s music seemed to be a glimpse of today’s frenetic life style where everyone gets their buzz from going at speed, hardly pausing for breath. The Scottish dancers didn’t let up either until the strains of Mozart’s calming influence were heard. Now the whirlwind activity slackened somewhat and the mood became more classical and, dare I say it, more romantic - though there were still plenty of quirky non-classical moments such as shaking and rotating heads at the end of an action; robotic ‘Moon walking'; a lift that had the boy putting his head through the girl’s legs and raising her, with no hands, onto his shoulders; windmill arms and more. Elo, a former ice hockey skater, often suggests in his choreography the smooth swift controlled gliding of that sport and also the actions of swimmers. The ending reminded me of Balanchine’s Symphony in C finale where everyone rushes on and off, doing their bit as the frantic pace builds - though with Balanchine, it’s a regal classical ending, and here it’s a huddle where the dancers finally screech to a stop, panting like mad. And it was Elo who had the last laugh. What did the title mean? As audiences watched breathless and bemused, they were probably, like me, trying to make a connection with the ballet. Much speculation was mulled over during the interval, but apparently there is none!

The tone of the second piece was sombre and moving. Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth) created in 1965, is one of Kenneth MacMillan’s darkest ballets and yet it is one of great beauty. It explores man’s struggle to come to terms with his mortality and follows Gustav Mahler’s sublime song cycle, composed when he was suffering from heart disease and his daughter had just died. The words of the six songs come from a series of 8th century Chinese poems, which tell that one must accept death as part of life. Mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill and tenor Richard Berkeley-Steele stood at the sides of the stage and sang in German as the dancers performed.

There are three central roles: a man, a woman and the Messenger of Death, a masked figure who appears in each of the songs, weaving in and out of the dancers, sometimes benignly joining in but reminding of the ever-presence and inevitability of death in everyone’s life. But in the last song the Messenger is especially forceful as he finally takes the man away. The role demands tremendous strength and stamina throughout the ballet, and Christopher Harrison portrayed the character with dignity and quiet charisma along with his sharply defined technique.

As the leading woman, Sophie Martin not only danced with great clarity but also looked the role - beautiful, serene and chaste in her pure white tunic. She possesses a lovely lyrical style that stems from her inner being and flows with the music. In the long last song where she must face the loss of her lover, only to be reunited with him at the end, she was poignant and gracious. Her man, Erik Cavallari, offered strong leaps, clean turns and assured partnering. The company complemented the ballet with pleasing style, and though the men are of varying shapes and heights (when the ballet cries out for uniform exponents), they showed admirable strength and vigour throughout - especially commendable since most of them had whizzed through the first piece. Christopher Hampson has a fine group of dancers awaiting him.