English National Ballet’s unique approximation of an Advent calendar was to release a world premiere dance film on the five Mondays prior to Christmas, each accompanied by the bonus of a brief documentary focused on the work’s creative process.

English National Ballet in Take Five Blues by Shaun James Grant, choreographed by Stina Quagebeur
© English National Ballet

Tamara Rojo, ENB’s artistic director, paired a choreographer with a filmmaker (or filmmaking duo) and she split the ENB ensemble into five groups both to enable separate “bubbles” for anti-Covid purposes and to spread opportunity for her dancers. The choreographers selected ranged from the highly experienced (Yuri Possokhov, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Russell Maliphant), and ENB’s Associate Choreographer (Stina Quagebeur) to a relative newcomer, 24-year-old Arielle Smith. 

Quagebeur was responsible for Take Five Blues, the opener in this digital season; a film about the joy of dance, inspired by the uplifting flow between vintage jazz and classical music, firstly in Nigel Kennedy’s unique take on the Dave Brubeck classic Take Five, followed by his rendition of Bach’s Vivace.   

Shaun James Grant created a twilight atmosphere for Quagebeur’s choreography, where eight dancers begin in a disconnected world of their own self-absorbed preparations before explosively joining together in close formation and then disaggregating again into simultaneous sequences in which their particular skills come to the fore. At the end of the Take Five track they disassemble but there is no let-up since Kennedy’s violin picks up again and the dancers begin a second gruelling round. Quagebeur brings her unique perspective on the strengths of her colleagues to bear on creating a breathless momentum. It’s hardly surprising that the five men collapse, exhausted, at the end! 

Emma Hawes and Francesco Gabriele Frola in Senseless Kindness by Thomas James and Yuri Possokhov
© English National Ballet

The second world premiere was Senseless Kindness, the first work for a UK company by Yuri Possokhov, former principal dancer with the Bolshoi, Royal Danish and San Francisco Ballets. His work has a narrative frame, drawn from Vasily Grossman’s epic novel, Life and Fate, describing the experiences of a Russian family in the Second World War.   

Possokhov has set the work to Shostakovich’s Piano Trio no 1, recorded by Matthew Scrivener (violin), Gary Stevens (cello) and Julia Richter (piano), creating an elegant classical dance quartet for Francesco Gabriele Frola, Emma Hawes, Isaac Hernández and Alison McWhinney. The style is given an enigmatic, vintage cloak of bold and diverse lighting in a richly textured black and white film, directed by Thomas James; and the simple costumes by ENB’s Federica Romana enhance that vintage aura.

Erina Takahashi and Precious Adams in Laid in Earth, by Thomas James and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui
© English National Ballet

If Hammer Horror had ever made a dance film it could resemble Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s Laid in Earth, beginning with gothic titles in blood-red script, so evocative of the Dracula series. The earth and the underworld entwine and overlap in Cherkaoui’s “torn apart” quartet, which gives another welcome chance to see Erina Takahashi and James Streeter perform together, alongside Precious Adams and Jeffrey Cirio. This mystical story (also directed by Streeter) features a surreal blending of fluid, sinuous choreography; an outdoors set of barren trees and dusty soil; and an eerie, mysterious aesthetic. 

Laid in Earth is set to Purcell’s aria from Dido and Aeneas – arranged by Gavin Sutherland, recorded by musicians from English National Ballet Philharmonic and sung by mezzo soprano Flora McIntosh, enveloped in new electronic music by composer and multi-instrumentalist Olga Wojciechowska, Cherkaoui’s long-time collaborator. The dancers are streaked in burnt gold body paint and Dries Van Noten has designed costumes that include fungi appearing to grow from the dancers’ faces and bodies.

Fernanda Oliveira, Fabian Reimair in Russell Maliphant's Echoes by Michael Nunn & William Trevitt
© English National Ballet

The penultimate film (the shortest at just over 12 minutes) was Echoes by Russell Maliphant, featuring Fernanda Oliveira and Fabian Reimair and directed by Michael Nunn and William Trevitt. It was essentially composed in two parts, opening with a long duet for the principals and then featuring a sextet of Isabelle Brouwers, Eileen Evrard, Giorgio Garrett, Anjuli Hudson and Junor Souza. Stylistically, the work seems to follow Maliphant’s The Space Between and Silent Lines, specifically in the dominant feature of light effects in a blackout, designed by Panagiotis Tomaras. The impact of lighting has always been key to Maliphant works but with Tomaras it has moved into a new level of authority. The light doesn’t accentuate or emphasise the dance, rather it controls the work, with the performers seeming to be visual echoes of something more substantial but now gone. 

The final world premiere, released on 21st December, was Jolly Folly, by Arielle Smith and filmmaker Amy Becker-Burnett, which was inspired by the genre of silent comedy movies and is packed with the same fast-paced, breathless movement across three brief acts. A cast of eight dancers perform in evening dress, dancing to the Klazz Brothers’ hi-energy, Latin-infused covers of Tchaikovsky, Strauss and Mozart in this black and white film replete with nostalgic references (including Julia Conway and Francesca Velicu in a boxing match and Erik Woolhouse searching for Shangri-La on top of a mountain).

Francesca Velicu, Ken Saruhashi, Julia Conway in Arielle Smith's Jolly Folly by Amy Becker-Burnett
© English National Ballet

Following such experienced choreographers of international acclaim, Smith more than holds her own in terms of movement quality and concept. She terms herself a “junior” in the accompanying documentary but it is a self-deprecating tag that applies to age alone. This was a very fine debut that was made to be capable of translation to the stage and I hope that this comes to pass very soon.  

All five films, and their accompanying documentaries, a total of more than 100 minutes’ viewing time, are available to rent via Ballet on Demand, part of the Company’s new video platform, ENB at Home. For the first time in 70 years, ENB will not perform a live season of The Nutcracker at Christmas. It is no substitute but this digital film series has at least presented these fabulous dancers in new situations.  

These performances were reviewed from ENB's Ballet on Demand video streams