Initially assuming the form of a masked male dancer and shape-shifting, over the course of the evening, into a cheeky woodland nymph, the promise of an afterlife hovers over English National Ballet’s latest double-bill. Despite similarities in underlying themes, the Song of the Earth and La Sylphide could not be more different; it’s an unusual pairing which requires audience willingness to quickly adjust aesthetic expectation. As such, ENB’s double-bill lurches, rather jarring, across centuries dividing a nineteenth century canonical romantic ballet from the streamlined expressionism of Kenneth MacMillan’s 1965 Song of the Earth.

ENB perform Song of the Earth as part of the commemorative season marking twenty-five years since the death of Kenneth MacMillan. A stark piece exploring the unseen and unnoticed presence of death in daily life, MacMillan described the ballet’s streamlined structure as: ‘A man and a woman; death takes the man; they both return to her and at the end of the ballet, we find that in death there is the promise of renewal.’ Underpinning this hopeful promise of renewal Gustav Mahler’s score is hauntingly dark. A song cycle of ancient Chinese poems composed after his daughter’s death from scarlet fever, Das Lied von der Erde was initially deemed too grand for a ballet production.

Song of the Earth’s stylised, sculptural arm movements and oriental delicacy are punctuated by flex-footed inverted lines and curled crouches that are earth-bound and primal. Approached with both enthusiasm and sensitivity, the company’s interpretation of MacMillan’s masterpiece shows real promise yet needs further rehearsal refinement. At moments discordant and mistimed corps de ballet movements undermine the symbolic need for unity and synchrony between bodies. On a bare stage, there is nowhere to hide. MacMillan’s use of stillness is powerful; his dancers pause with outstretched, pleading hands or turn as though they are listening to a distant melody only they can hear. Fernando Carratalá Coloma, a new junior member of the company, dances with the steely, remote gravitas needed as the Messenger of Death. Expertly crafted, Tamara Rojo’s performance as The Woman is deeply dramatic. She owns the stage; her presence so potent at times it seems like she is the only one dancing.

Far from the modernist expressionism of Song of the Earth, La Sylphide can seem overly anachronistic. In particular, this double-bill’s juxtapositioning highlights La Sylphide’s historically important clichés. Originally choreographed in 1832 by Taglioni for his daughter Marie, La Sylphide codified an ideal image of the archetypical Romantic ballerina: graceful, wafting tulle skirts and pointe work that amplified ethereal lightness and femininity. Since the nineteenth century, August Bournonville’s version of the Romantic classic has been consistently staged and performed.

Disappointingly Mikael Melbye’s designs for ENB take the atmospheric Scottish Highland setting turning aristocratic country house and misty woodland glade into a cartoon resembling Fraggle Rock. Despite their surroundings, Daniel Kraus and Isaac Hernández revel in Bournonville’s bravado choreography as they cabriole across the stage, kilts flapping. Hernández’s batterie (when the dancer beats his legs together while jumping) is sharp and clean and his elevation impressively powerful. Jurgita Dronina’s performance is delightful; recovering from a shaky series of opening pirouettes, her use of épaulement and detailed, crisp footwork capture the spirit of Bournonville’s distinct style, while her liquid metatarsals, delicate poise and cheeky smile ensure her performance avoids the saccharine.