Ballet boys: often beleaguered, often mocked. The western world’s version of masculinity does not easily accommodate the grace, power or pink tights characteristic of the male ballet dancer. William Forsythe’s new piece Playlist (Track 1, 2) functions as a response to this unfashionable image: wearing football jerseys, the all-male ensemble dances with explosive energy as though motivated by every derisory comment or misunderstanding.

<i>Playlist (Track 1, 2)</i> © Laurent Liotardo
Playlist (Track 1, 2)
© Laurent Liotardo

It is a five star world première. With considerable choreographic craft Playlist (Track 1, 2) brings the virility, mischief and sheer joy of the classical male body to the forefront. Using soul and house music to capture a nightclub spirit, Forsythe strips away the formal rigidity of classical ballet, revels in its slinking sex appeal and, most interestingly, finds ballet’s capacity for fun. The dancers clearly love every minute as Forsythe’s choreography allows them to display their virtuoso skill; English National Ballet’s male soloists grasp this wonderful opportunity and perform with considerable panache. While Aaron Robinson’s combination of charisma and technique stand out, Playlist (Track 1, 2) is an ensemble piece performed with disciplined synchronicity and collective technical prowess. If audience response is any indicator (wolf-whistles, standing ovation) there is an unfulfilled appetite for such displays of balletic male bravado.

Cyrstal Costa in <i>Fantastic Beings</i> © Laurent Liotardo
Cyrstal Costa in Fantastic Beings
© Laurent Liotardo

Playlist (Track 1, 2) provides a contrast to the serious, contemplative mood of Approximate Sonata 2016, the second William Forsythe piece of the evening. Having spent decades deconstructing classical ballet vocabulary, Forsythe’s canonical works (In the middle somewhat elevated, Septext) place the body on edge, always slightly off-kilter. Approximate Sonata 2016 utilises this vocabulary to explore the shifting overlap between performance and rehearsal ways of being. Unfolding as a series of pas de deux, the dancers seamlessly practise and perform; as they shift between confident polished movements and the toil of practice their effortful breathing becomes louder emphasising both physical strain and strength. Alina Cojocaru brilliantly embodies the concentrated, obsessional striving of the working dancer: as she lifts her downcast eyes from the floor to a self-conscious pose for the audience the tension between effort and performance becomes clear.

Opening the evening Aszure Barton’s Fantastic Beings begins with a giant blinking eye projected onto the backcloth. Using liquid movements and Michelle Jank’s magical costuming (reptilian unitards and theatrical fringed bear suits) Fantastic Beings evokes a world of imaginary creatures. First commissioned as part of Tamara Rojo’s She Said programme, Barton’s piece compares unfavourably with Jerome Robbins’ The Cage.

<i>The Cage</i> © Laurent Liotardo
The Cage
© Laurent Liotardo

Separated by 65 years, The Cage premiered in New York in 1951, both pieces draw movement inspiration from the animal world. The Cage, despite its vintage flavour, is the more interesting work. A simple narrative, the world of natural selection is explored through female insects and their male prey, Robbins' piece uses dramatic gesture to create angular shapes and dynamic patterns. Set to Stravinsky’s rousing Concerto in D for String Orchestra the female corps de ballet is rapacious, their mouths contorted in wide-gaping hunger. As the novice, Jurgita Dronina is technically excellent: her flexible limbs suitably splayed and brittle.