The English National Ballet at the Southbank Centre, London

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The English National Ballet, photo Patrick Baldwin

The English National Ballet, photo Patrick Baldwin

The English National Ballet
Southbank Centre, London

Walking across the Charing Cross footbridge, wishing the Thames didn’t look muddy no matter how blue the sky, I spied what looked like a Safeway supermarket attempting liftoff from the opposite shore. Actually, it was Royal Festival Hall. The building consists of a multi-storied cube topped with a plain barrel vault. You’d never suspect the interior was devoted to music and dance – it could easily be a widget factory. But gratitude is due the city planners, who plunked RFH down in 1951 when the South Bank was littered with little else but closed factories and depressing detritus from the war. This year the hall reopened after expensive refurbishment, with public promises that its bad acoustics had been remedied.

I can’t report on the acoustics because I went there yesterday for the English National Ballet, in town for a limited run — they usually tour the land wherever railroads can take them (think Swan Lake in Bradford and Hull). I’d risk fatuousness trying to pass myself off as a dance reviewer, but the three one-act ballets on the program created contrasting impressions. The first work, A Million Kisses to My Skin, has a hot title but turned out to be a cool exercise inupdated classicism, set to Bach’s Harpsichord Concerto No. 1, played here on piano. The dancers, in pale blue tights and gauzy white tops, were cheerful and summery, following Bach’s rhythms like perpetual motion whirligigs. Mark Morris does the same thing better, but that’sback-handed. It’s not necessary for the skilled choreographer DavidDawson to improve upon genius.

The second piece was set to Mahler’s Five Ruckert Lieder, and I freely admit that it made no sense to me. In the pit mezzo Elizabeth Sikora acquitted herself well in the songs, while on stage small groups of dancers woreblack mesh tops and black pants (a la East Berlin cabaret) while mist cascaded from the ceiling as if the heating system had sprung a leak. There’s a major trend in modern dance to create steps havingnothing to do with the music, and choreographer Wayne Eagling, director of the English National, took a front-row seat on the bandwagon. I fidgeted as four songs of divergent emotion accompanied the same fast-motion writhing, lifting, and bending, without variation.Turned out by the yard, the style could be applied to anything: Sinatra, Kurt Weill, the Beach Boys, etc.

Until, that is, Eagling had a stroke of inspiration for the last, greatest lied, Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen.Three men came out with bare torsos and black pants under a single spotlight, and one of them was used – meaning tossed around, bent, and lifted –like a corpse, a soul trying to soar to heaven, and Jesus on the cross in turn. The glowing bare flesh was spooky, since each dancer’s lower body had disappeared, black on black in a dark room.Futile as it is to describe dancing in words, I felt an paradoxical merging of Mahler’s text (which is about a soul transcending this world) and the muscular striving on stage.

Finally came an improbable work that will stick with me for a long time: Etudes, which starts out deceptively as a gimmick– dancers practicing basic steps at the barre without choreography, and nothing else. Set to brief Czerny etudes (which turned out to be as infectious as Rossini whenorchestrated by Knudage Riisager), the ballet continues in kind, giving us one-minute glimpses of various basic steps. Instead of being repetitious, however, we soon grasp that we the audience are at a lesson, not the performers on stage. Quickly our eyes pick up each step, and soon the choreographer, Harald Lander, puts the vocabulary to use. A Giselle comes on stage, then some Willis, a Prince Siegfried (three, actually), spinning out fouettes, arabesques, and indefatigable pirouettes into sophisticated dance.

I’m making it sound like Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, but Etudes is a revelatory experience — you find that your eye can in 25 visual lessons connectthe humble, backbreaking, never-ending routine ofdaily classeswith the beauty and delight of a finished ballet. No words or concepts interpose between your eye and the dancer’s art. Frankly, it was breathtaking to see how 36 dancers, from the anonymous corps de ballet member to the applause-seducing soloist, are part of the same republic in which discipline and total dedication are the rule. Not one dancer dropped a stitch, and even if we weren’t watching a herd of Makarovas and Baryshnikovs, I will never see the corps as simply part of the scenery again.

About the author

Huntley Dent

Huntley Dent is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Santa Fe.

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