English National Ballet: Ek/ Forsythe/ Quagebeur – Sadler’s Wells, London

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

Choreographers: William Forsyth, Stina Quagebeur and Mats Ek

A triple bill of contemporary work is the purpose for English National Ballet’s relative rare appearance at Sadler’s Wells presenting pieces by renowned choreographers William Forsyth, Stina Quagebeur and Mats Ek. A dynamic evening full of deliberate harmony and discord, these works explore the intersection between classical and contemporary dance, music and cinematic forms of storytelling.

The big draw is the world premiere of Mats Ek’s reinterpretation of The Rite of Spring which brings a Japanese horror vibe to Stravinsky’s drama-laden music. A piece already coated with the doomed sacrifice of youth, Ek’s vision somehow makes this story even darker with an arranged marriage that ultimately threatens the stability of the townsfolk who require the spirited couple’s complete conformity. In a representative design by Marie-Louise Ekman, there is a sparseness to the visual, drawing on simple kimono shapes and symbolic set design to create a feeling of imposing tradition and uniformity.

Ek’s approach is gripping and, while you may need at least the barest knowledge of the tale to fully understand it, Ek takes what is usually a series of scenes and carves an intense social commentary. His choreography reflects the design, blocky and blunt in style, filled with powerful men and subjugated women while there are moments of tenderness between Emily Suzuki’s Daughter and Fernando Carratalá Coloma’s Bridegroom.

Any piece by William Forsyth creates incredible anticipation and here the renowned choreographer creates a concept album of dances across 35-minutes set to seven songs by James Blake. Forsyth offers an unusual pop/ballet collaboration mixing classical movement with a sassy and even witty contemporary flair. It pairs the stretch and shaping of ballet with the popped hips and attitude of modern dance, blended together seamlessly across the different combinations of mood and dancer that Forsyth puts together.

Both the opening I Need a Forest Fire and the fourth piece I hope My Life-1800-Mix are full ensemble numbers in which the choreographer suggests a beautifully precise chaos. There is liberation and energy in the movements but look closely and in the melee, there are patters, pairs or groups of dancers performing the same movements that give this a unified shape and purpose.

Forysth takes this across to the smaller segments as well and the recurring trio in Blake Works I is fascinating. Two of the three performers are usually in sync while a third element moves differently. This is especially effective in the all-male Two Men Down which begins with the dancers walking backwards in a stylised almost robotic fashion, brilliantly expanded to the group numbers and flawless solos filled with verve. Finally, the dancers find themselves in harmony with a poignant pas de deux, f.o.r.e.v.e.r danced by Emma Hawes and Aitor Arrieta who are in perfect physical and emotional union, much as the audience is with Forsyth’s rhythm by the end of this wonderful restaging.

Stina Quagebeur brings the same sense of infectious choreography to her 25-minute piece Take Five Blues for nine dancers that also uses a modern feeling in the music – Nigel Kennedy’s Recital: Take Two – to explore the different opportunities for group and individual performances and the fluid movement between the two. Quagebeur also creates patterns of interaction, but this time with observers among the other dancers who watch before claiming the limelight for themselves. There is a sense of dancers ‘presenting’ their skills, engaging in duets or battles, pushing their fellows to greater heights.

The loose jazz ballet concept becomes almost movie musical in some of the phrasing as the pack work hints at West Side Story or Guys and Dolls as the group move in unison. Later, there is an outdoor festival feeling, perhaps even Oklahoma!, In the breezy speeds of the dancers who respond to the intensity of Kennedy’s music smoothly flowing into different formations and change of tone.

Quagebeur and Forsyth feel like they’re in harmony in this show creating a natural progression through the evening and while Ek’s concluding showcase doesn’t fully align, it makes its mark quite differently.

Runs until 12 November 2022

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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