Artistic Director: Tamara Rojo
Choreography: Kenneth MacMillan, August Bournonville
Music: Gustav Mahler, Herman Severin Løvenskiold
Reviewer: Peter Jacobs
The new English National Ballet double bill of Song of the Earth and La Sylphide may seem an odd mix of ‘new’ and old but – linked by themes of love, redemption and death – and both being significant markers in the history of the ballet that are yet new to the company (and both sufficiently short to require doubling-up) the programme begins to make sense.
Kenneth MacMillan’s Song of The Earth dates from 1965, so is far from new but the design looks like a new work, emphasising what a significant piece of progressive dance this was for MacMillan and British ballet. Except the Royal Ballet originally rejected MacMillan’s proposal on the basis that ‘great’ music – in this case Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde – was not appropriate for ballet. Macmillan took the project to John Cranko at Stuttgart Ballet, who immediately commissioned the work, which was an instant hit. Within months, Frederick Ashton was asking MacMillan to stage the work at Covent Garden. It became MacMillan’s first and most enduringly-significant major work.
Mahler was becoming a close friend of mortality – following the death of a child and his own endangered health – when he set six T’ang dynasty Chinese poems by Li-Tai-Po in a German translation to music. MacMillan draws from the mood of the poems rather than any linear narrative, only occasionally making reference to specific imagery. The ballet is very simply staged with two onstage singers – Contralto Rhonda Browne and Tenor Samuel Sakker – who alternate each song.
The original design by Nicholas Georgiadis – with lighting by John B. Read – is an elegant, distant blur suggestive of certain times of day or qualities of light, the presence of water. Costumes are simply plain, colour delineating the three main characters – a Man (pale grey), a Woman (white) and the Messenger (of Death) (black, masked) from the ‘others’. The Man and the Woman are in love and progressively become distant from their community to be together with the ever-presence of death, until the man is taken away to return masked, at one with death. The Messenger of Death is benevolent, a companion, ever-present, not an especially sinister figure and the message of the ballet, as with the music, is of love and resilience and redemption and eternity.
The company soon settle into the clean, linear, symbolic complexity of Macmillan’s choreography. Tamara Rojo is an exquisitely-austere presence as the Woman, her dark beauty and precise, effortless placement of the steps and gestures anchors the piece. Joseph Caley as the Man seems more tremulous in his serious attitude of noble dignity. Jeffrey Cirio is an oddly reassuring loving presence as the Messenger of Death.
Song of the Earth is a series of scenes that progressively draw the audience into the relationship of the central trio in the context of their community, culminating in the lovely final song, so the overall effect delivers a satisfying emotional narrative in the absence of conventional storytelling.
La Sylphide is a two-act ballet and probably the oldest surviving ballet still in repertoire. The version performed today dates from 1836, created from an 1832 original by the legendary August Bournonville in Copenhagen. Unable to purchase the original, Bournonville commissioned a new score by Herman Severin Løvenskiold and reworked the story. The version became an instant success and remains a staple of the Royal Danish Ballet, along with many of his other works. The Bournonville Danish ballet style is distinctive and uniquely presented here, as the production is the Danish one. Bournonville’s ballets are richly narrative with vividly clear miming to convey plot and emotion, with airy and busy footwork and lively choreography.
La Sylphide is another story of love and death, in this case James, a young Highlander who falls in love with a spirit on the eve of his wedding, allows himself to be drawn from the real world to the world of spirits where a witch he disrespected tricks him into betraying his beloved sylph after losing his fiancée. The Scottish setting – then fashionable from the novels of Sir Walter Scott – is delightful and the full staging is impressive.
The English National Ballet Philharmonic under the baton of Gavin Sutherland sound bright and lively – perhaps more at home than wading through the Mahler. The performances of the entire company match the score in liveliness and good humour: the mime acting delivers a wonderfully clear and unfussy narrative and the cast thrive on the opportunity to show character. Isaac Hernandez as James is remarkably good, delivering the jumps and batteries of Bournonville’s choreography with impressive lightness. His amiable innocence also absolves him of his culpability in the Sylph’s fate. The Sylph is played with considerable ethereal charm by Jurgita Dronina, ably supported by her sisterhood of sylphs. James’s love rival Gurn is played with charming intensity and lack of guile by Giorgio Garrett. The standout performance somehow is Jane Haworth as Madge – the witch who conjures both love and betrayal: a character performance of impressive charm, complexity and wit.
La Sylphide is an absolute joy to watch. It flies by, a blur of tartan and white net. It doesn’t match the drama or intensity of Giselle, which it predates by ten years and with which it shares similarities – although most of the classic ballets have the boy loves girl, boy falls in love with ethereal spirit/dead girl, then loses her narrative. The yearning for a life more magical and elusive than the mundane is a theme that gives La Sylphide a modern currency. This is a vivid, colourful and joyful romp that lifts the spirits (even as they drift mournfully into the forest).
All in all, a diverse and satisfying double bill. Also a bit of a ballet history lesson: but a fulfilling one.
Runs until 14 October 2017 | Image: Laurent Liotardo