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by on 11 November 2022

Triple Time


Triple Bill by William Forsythe, Stina Quagebeur and Mats Ek

English National Ballet at Sadler’s Wells Theatre until 12th November

Review by Suzanne Frost

Much change is in the air at English National Ballet.  Artistic Director Tamara Rojo, visionary leader and one of the most outspoken voices for the arts during Covid, is leaving the company after a decade.  On stage, there are also a few familiar faces and their associate star power missing.  But this triple bill of new(ish) works celebrates the power and quality of the ensemble. 

The evening opens with William Forsythe’s Blake Works I, a large ensemble piece first created for the formidable Paris Opera Ballet.  As the programme notes righty mention, there has never been a choreographer quite like Forsythe – and possibly the most wonderful thing about him is that while he is now in his 70s, his work remains as young and sprightly and new and curious as ever.  The last time he worked with ENB he created the spectacular Playlist 1 and 2 for the men of the company, a piece that instantly proved it is one for the ages.  Similar to Playlist, Blake Works is set to contemporary pop music, this time by singer songwriter James Blake, and it’s nice to see the women of the ensemble included this time.  Dressed all in pale blue, groups of dancers create snippets of symmetrical poses with more than a nod to Balanchine’s Serenade.  All the tropes of a classic Forsythe are there, in the hinged hips, flexed hands and exaggerated epaulement – yet the movement doesn’t feel as happily married to Blake’s folksy loungy jazz.  The songs that have a more pronounced beat work better but the spark of genius, that Paylist so undoubtedly demonstrates, is not quite taking off.  It’s sassy and stylish and beautiful – but Blake Works feels more like and exercise, a sketch in the master’s notebook.

Framed by the works of the two great – but admittedly old – men of ballet, Forsythe and Mats Ek, is the work of Stina Quagebeur, a longstanding soloist of ENB whose venture into choreography has been loyally supported by Tamara Rojo over the last few years.  And it slots in beautifully.  Her Take Five Blues, first created for the digital stage during the pandemic, uses equally popular music: Nigel Kennedy’s gipsy jazz versions of famous classics by Bach, Brubeck and Desmond.  Again, the ensemble is dressed in shades of blues, but this work is much more fluid, joyful, relaxed, there’s more release, more swing, and it’s got stunning performances from Katja Khaniukova and Matthew Astley, who is on the list for ENB’s annual Emerging Dancer Competition and has definitely won my vote this evening.

The final work is probably the one most audience members came for: a world premiere by the legendary Swedish choreographer Mats Ek, created for the company.  Surprisingly, Ek who has been creating for decades, chose The Rite of Spring, that uber-popular, overused piece of music that is undeniably important and seminal, but also has the potential to set your teeth on edge like few others.  Personally, my favourite interpretation of the music will always be in Disney’s Fantasia, where volcanoes erupt and dinosaurs trample each other to those infamous staccato beats.  I have never much liked the story of the sacrificial virgin in some rural pagan community.  Did we really need another version?  Well Ek wouldn’t be Ek if he didn’t find something new to tell.

We seem to find ourselves in a Handmaid’s Talestyle dystopia where everybody wear pink silk pyjamas.  But rather than hugging you in softness these costumes are made of foam, so they stand around the body like a suit of armour.  There is a mother and a father, and an arranged marriage, a daughter drowning in a huge white wedding cloak, a shy groom who always seems to be placed on the very edges of the action, and a stick placed centre stage, that no one is allowed to touch, seemingly representing society or tradition itself.  In the end, the young bride removes that stick, and rather than her becoming a sacrificial victim, all of society crumbles and dies right in front of her.  I didn’t particularly enjoy watching this piece in the theatre, yet it is the one still playing on my mind.  When the curtain fell, I wasn’t sure if I really understood it, yet in hindsight I believe that every single visual landed.  He’s clever like that, a true master choreographer.

Suzanne Frost, November 2022

Photography by Laurent Liotardo

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