5 Jul 2024

English National Ballet School Summer Performance 2024 quad bill

More from the Royal Opera House Next Generation Festival as English National Ballet School present their 2024 Summer Performance with works by Frederick Ashton, Andrew McNicol and Pina Bausch…

English National Ballet School in Pina Bausch’s Tannhäuser-Bacchanal. © Photography by ASHEnglish National Ballet School in Pina Bausch’s Tannhäuser-Bacchanal. © Photography by ASH

English National Ballet School
Summer Performance 2024: Les Patineurs, Of Space and Time, Tannhäuser-Bacchanal, The Nelken Line
London, ROH Linbury Theatre
4 July 2024, matinee

English National Ballet School (ENBS) has just brought the short Royal Opera House Next Generation Festival to a happy conclusion with its 2024 Summer Performance. I say happy because all four pieces brought a smile to my face while properly testing the students in outstanding classical, heritage and contemporary works. It also neatly tested the audience, of which more later.

What better place to start a happy journey than with Frederick Ashton’s Les Patineurs (The Skaters)? Although we don’t see it so often these days, the Wikipedia entry hints of its amazing popularity in the past: After a triumphant premiere, Les Patineurs was performed in London every season from 1937 to 1968 (except 1960)…”. Nominally, it’s a simple ballet about a late Victorian skating party set around a trellised rink with youngsters enjoying themselves, enjoying the company of each other, and, at times, showing off. The joy comes from Ashton’s cleverness in aping skating moves and William Chappell’s warmly evocative designs that also conveniently colour-code various soloist roles.

Danced by the graduating students (Year 3), ENBS made a good fist of Ashton’s often tricky steps, none more so than Tia Helmer and Florence Lane’s Blue Girls and their Blue Boy companion, So Hadano. I appreciated their sharp flourish and finish generally, as well as Hadano’s confident swagger and self-belief - the essence of the Blue Boy. Sad though that at the end, when the curtain comes down on an ever-turning Blue Boy, we didn’t get the expected coda of the curtain coming up again (after a few seconds) to reveal a still-turning Blue Boy, beaming in his cleverness. A missed production trick there. I also liked the White Couple, with the ever-smiling Tamaki Yamada and the serious Joe Bratko-Dickson, if, viewed from the gallery, I find the strange inverted splits, showing off her underwear and meant to be a bit of fun, rather ungainly. Last week, we had Ashton’s The Walk To The Paradise Garden, showing us an awkward upside-down lift and more knickers on display. It’s a small reminder of how times and taste can change. But don’t let me leave you with the impression that this was anything but a fine showing of a fine ballet.

For ENBS Years 1 and 2, Andrew McNicol made Of Space and Time to celebrate a student’s progression and flowering in the ballet studio. This was full-on classism with little strong-arm power twists here and there, but what McNicol does particularly well is shuffling his dancers in oddly overlapping waves, canon, lines and ellipses and also shuttling them on and off the stage in exciting ways. As Year 2 students enter the fray, we get pas de deux couples and more sparkling classical movement before all 40+ students from both years end the piece in Grand Défilé style - cue thunderous applause. I can tire of strict classism, but smiled through much of Space and Time because of its fast-paced dynamism and use of excellent musical variety over its 13 minutes - from Beethoven, Glazunov, Martinů and Tchaikovsky.

Tannhäuser-Bacchanal is an early piece of Pina Bausch, from 1972, that predates her taking over the company at Wuppertal that now bears her name. Many see Bacchanal as an important precursor to her magnificent Le Sacre du printemps (Rite of spring), made three years later, and Bacchanal has been revived a few times, this latest version being a co-production between the school and the Pina Bausch Foundation in collaboration with the Wuppertal company. It’s the real deal, if at first take the Tannhäuser (opera) plot, with its initial erotic drink-filled cavorting, seems an odd choice for a school show. Indeed, Wikipedia refers to it in passing as an orgiastic ballet”!

In actuality, this is stylised and thoughtful movement, pared back to an almost detached mannequin-like display over its 13 short minutes. For 23 dancers, clothed in off-white unitards, it starts with them all flat on the floor gently writhing on their arched backs, arms, shoulders and legs softly undulating in a slowly calculated erotic pulse. It’s not the movement of uncontrolled abandon as many would see such pleasures, but an arresting image for sure. Slowly, dancers stand, coolly interact or just waft in the moment before collapsing back to the floor and continuing their blissful private moments. Almost unnoticed, sometimes they couple up or do a duet - but you get the drift, not in any particularly salacious way. Overall, it feels like a mesmerising dream, and the simple movement, happening across the stage as it does, looks gorgeous. Always a pleasure to discover a new piece of Bausch.

The show closed with some well-known Pina Bausch and featured audience participation. The Nelken Line has been performed the world over and consists of a small set of arm gestures repeated in unison while slowly walking forward. The propelling music is West End Blues by Louis Armstrong & His Hot Five - even listening to it now, I want to do the moves. Sadly, the Linbury doesn’t have the room to form a line involving the audience, but we all stood up as Viviana Durante (the ENBS Artistic Director who sadly steps down this summer) and the Pina Bausch team who set Bacchanal took us through the moves a few times and after a while all the school came on stage in their line, dressed however they wanted. A riot of colour and fashion to complement the simple movement. It’s a great way to spend 8 minutes and send everybody home happy - including me.