Prowling prima-donnas, solemn couplings, violent human sacrifice – Tamara Rojo’s latest bill for English National Ballet is underpinned by tension, divvied across three starkly different twentieth-century ballets. The diverse programme speaks to the company’s growing versatility under Rojo’s direction, as well as its expanding repertoire, which is steadily amassing prominent European fare, including Pina Bausch’s explosive Le Sacre du printemps. Until now, Paris Opera Ballet has been the only company beyond Bausch’s own Tanztheater Wuppertal entrusted to perform the 1975 work. ENB’s restaging marks its first showing in the UK since 2008, and is a sign of confidence both in and from Rojo, given that Bausch is no longer alive to oversee it.
Opening the bill is William Forsythe’s In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated, a pageant of punchy arabesques and slicing, jarring slides famously created for Sylvie Guillem and her fellow chou chou in 1987. ENB first tackled this ballet in its 2015 Modern Masters bill, but the casting has been rejigged this time around, with just three of the nine roles reprised. The result is a distinctly tamer rendition, dulled in sharpness and missing much of the electricity so thrillingly conjured two years ago. Several dancers let their cool slip as they struggled to match the shuddering, mercurial syncopations of Thom Willems’ score, and only a few managed the dynamic zigzag between ferocity and nonchalance that gives the ballet its bite. Of these, the standout performance came from Tiffany Hedman, who skulked and slithered with chilling articulation, expertly upholding her Parisian predecessors’ haughty legacy.
The mood solemnified as the six couples of Hans van Manen’s Adagio Hammerklavier – Rojo included – took the stage for a sustained adagio to the hypnotic notes of Beethoven's Piano Sonata No.29. The ballet appears gentle at first, with its soft, shiny costuming and delicate partnering, but shadowy undertones quickly emerge: sharp turns of the head, downcast eyes, cool, taut interactions that complicate the presumed romance between the couples performing them. These aren’t enough to moor it, though. Phrases that start out as elegant lapse into stiff, dispassionate routines, and the pace feels sluggish, with no discernible climax. Still, the dancers injected passion where they could, providing some striking moments, including a picturesque tableau struck by Rojo, Lauretta Summerscales and Fernanda Oliveira: three sustained extensions à la second, their feet hovering inches from their ears.
It’s ENB’s youngest dancers, barefoot and panting in Rite of Spring, who provide the programme’s most focused display of intensity. High-strung and frightful in their agitation, they make a formidable chorus for this dark tale, which like its precursor (Vaslav Nijinsky’s 1913 ballet, set to an avant-garde score by Igor Stravinsky) sees a young girl singled out and condemned to dance herself to death. Bausch’s reworking is an astute palimpsest, layering an allegory of misogyny (along with a literal coat of peat) over the original work, coaxing out its lethal tribalism. The ballet is mired in scenes of violence – from the alarming opening image of a woman face-down in a pile of dirt to the Chosen One’s final, wretched gasp – and it’s a testament to the dancers’ commitment and ENB’s progression at large that they so gamely (if not totally cogently) cast off their ballet selves to inhabit this ugly, crouched universe. A special round of applause to Francesca Velicu, who’s devastating in the central role, communicating dread, vulnerability and prickles of defiance all at once. Her dogged momentum alone is worth a ticket.