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Voices of America

by on 14 April 2018

Brilliant Virtuosity, Ease and Grace

Voices from America

by William Forsythe, Jerome Robbins and Aszure Barton

English National Ballet at Sadler’s Wells until 21st April

Review by Suzanne Frost

Wow. Who knew that the 68-year-old William Forsyth in his first creation ever for ENB would show us the future of ballet? His new work called Playlist (Track 1,2) ends this mixed bill named Voices from America on such a high, that the evening goes down as one of the major successes of the season, although it is, in terms of quality, not just a mixed bill but a mixed bag.

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Showcasing three North American choreographers, the evening is a celebration of the neo-classical style that originated with Georg Balanchine and Jerome Robbins in New York. Robbins is one of the creators represented in this evening. Usually so chic, so cool, full of humour and ease and nonchalant style, this work, The Cage, does not show him in a flattering light. Back in 1951, The Cage was seen as revolutionary but it has not aged well. It imagines the female ensemble, their hair combed up like crazy witches, as some kind of insects (the scenery suggesting a spider’s web) and they eat men. Crazy women who eat men – I can barely forgive this by remembering it was the 50s. The narrative outline in the programme lets us know that the Queen will give birth to a novice; and get ready, because the second the curtain lifts she is literally giving birth. To a larva-like creature who doesn’t want to eat men at first, but then her instincts are stronger and she just can’t control herself. The whole thing just stinks of horror feminae and I don’t want to think of Robbins that way. Luckily it’s all over in about fifteen minutes.

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Opening the evening is Fantastic Beings by the Canadian choreographer Aszure Barton. Barton is a female choreographer (yes, that elusive species) and her dancers are also animalistic creatures but they are completely beautiful. Dressed in shimmery scaled bodysuits they look like some kind of amphibian species, while a steady stream of glitter in the back of the pitch black stage and the atmospheric music by Mason Bates suggest a sort of nocturnal rainforest living ground. The mysterious specimen grow up to be long haired ape-like creatures and I know that might sound like a ridiculous image but the dancers look absolutely beautiful, the long shiny ape coats swirling around them when they jump and turn. The final image of the apes dancing under a rain storm of glitter is spectacular.

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The first offering from Forsyth is Approximate Sonata, a study on the pas de deux, in a reworked version for Paris Opera from 2016. The original piece is much older though, from 1996. It is classic Forsyth, stripped down minimalism, barely there electronic music from his faithful collaborator Thom Willems. The frankly rather ugly neon costumes make it look a bit dated though and the forced rehearsal atmosphere – at one point a couple stops mid dancing to discuss their steps before trying a sequence again – feels a tad silly. The piece falls a bit flat and a feeling of disappointment is completely justified when the curtain comes up for the last offering and you see what Forsyth is actually capable of.

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Playlist had me open mouthed all the way through. It also had me grooving in my seat and I can report woops and cheers from the balcony. The (let me repeat that) 68-year-old choreographer is clearly still as tuned in to popular culture as in the 80s, when he discovered the insanely perfect marriage of electronic music and classical ballet in benchmark works such as In the middle, somewhat elevated. Now, the master has discovered dance music and hip hop. Some classical companies occasionally experiment with setting their morning class not to a piano but to pop music and the burst of energy you can get from that, a new ease of movement and sense of fun, really breathes new life into classical steps.

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Forsyth puts his twelve men in stylised baseball uniforms, their names proudly emblazoned on the backs of their jerseys, if anyone needed reminding that these dancers are absolute athletes. They look at ease. These are clothes modern dancers would wear to class. They look cool. I am really pleased that one of the dancers, his jersey says Garrett, is not shaved but on stage with a hipster beard he probably sports in his daily life when not pretending to be a prince. The dancers are here as themselves and they obviously feel fantastic in the movements. They get to show off their brilliant virtuosity, precision, technical ability, ease and grace while having so much fun you wish you could join them. If there was ever a nightclub anywhere with men like that, dancing like that … it would be overrun! They bounce and bob and shrug their shoulders to Peven Everett’s Surely Shorty and Lion Babe’s Impossible remix, blending street dance moves with flawless grand jetés and fierce batterie and when they suddenly abruptly bow out, the audience goes wild. I could have watched this forever. Ditch the two middle pieces and give a whole hour to the electrifying nightclub of William Forsyth – and let the ladies join in! They got sold short.

Suzanne Frost
April 2018

Photography by Laurent Liotardo

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