Ballet companies are rediscovering the triple bill it seems. Having recently seen Northern Ballet Theatre give their first Triple Bill for 5 or so years, on Tuesday we got to a rare English National Ballet (ENB) Triple Bill at the Mayflower in Southampton. While in recent years ENB have toured some mixed bills to smaller theatres each spring, they have tended to shy away from presenting them at their usual, rather larger, venues.
It's not difficult to understand why - dramatic full length ballets often sell better. On the other hand it's triple bills that generally introduce new works and styles and can give dance-goers a much wider perspective. In short a company that does not feature some mixed bills is perhaps a company to be a little concerned about.
The ENB mixed bill is really quite adventurous, perhaps more so than many would have expected. There is La Bayadere - Kingdom of the Shades act - which is of course exactly what you would expect, but then it gets a bit more scary with Glen Tetley's Sphinx and Kenneth MacMillan's The Rite of Spring, both bold and pretty uncompromising. All the more delightful then to see the Mayflower sold out and a testament perhaps to a public that trusts the company to deliver them a good night.
In the summer there was much coming and going on the dancer front at ENB, but you would not have guessed that from the Bayadere they put on. The Shades act is always a stern test for a corps, and while there was some wobbling here and there, it all looked really rather good.
Setting it all off was Agnes Oaks, recovered from her injury early in the year and Thomas Edur. It all fitted them as a glove - they are born for such roles and know each other so well (husband and wife if you didn't know). Their arms just match and there is a marvellous steadiness in their work. And Tom's majestic jumps. From the applause Southampton certainly knew it was lucky but I wonder if they really know how lucky they are to see such a couple, dancers in demand as star guests all over the world. And here they are touring the UK for the wider enjoyment of the country. Oh that it were possible to coax (and fund) others of London's very greatest dancers out to the 'normal' world I thought.
While there is a story being told in Sphinx I think maybe it's just best seen as an abstract piece with two men and a girl, or rather a jackel-headed Egyptian god, Oedipus and a Sphinx who in this case is death and tired of killing...
I didn't time it but it must be 35 or 40 minutes long and a hell of a time for 3 dancers to sustain it all. What's more the choreography is quite athletic at times and everybody is in one-piece costumes which give nowhere to hide, every move must be clear. The first time I saw it I was unmoved, but this time I was a little more shaken. The dancers - Daria Klimentova (Sphinx), Thomas Edur (Oedipus) and Dmitri Gruzdyev (Anubis) were of the quality to hold it all together, but the choreography still seems the weak link, being quite repetitive at times. It doesn't tell a story so well and is not inventive enough as pure dance. I'm also not so keen on the set of Rouben Ter-Artutuniam - its just seems to dominate the stage and look a bit 70's art student. But the feline movements of Klimentova were very memorable and all three dancers performed with much conviction.
The reason all the critics were out was to see Kenneth MacMillan's The Rite of Spring. Music and dance that shocked (fighting broke out!) the world when it was first performed by Ballets Russes in 1913, it was definitely part of the new then and still has the power to grab you by the throat. The Stravinsky score of course plays a very major part, but MacMillan's choreography is utterly primaeval and very odd for those used to ballet. The start is particularly strange with all the dancers sticking their rumps out - at first you wonder if the costumes have been padded to accentuate their bums. This, the square gate, flattened look and shuffling angular walk make you really sit up and pay attention.
Having celebrated spring, the second half features the sacrifice where the Chosen One is danced to death to ensure a bumper harvest. Tamara Rojo danced the role, but Monica Mason (now RB Assistant Director) was also there and she originally created it back in 1962. It's an odd role in many respects and the choreography is not so amazingly showy, or indeed demonstrable in the way that MacMillan might have produced it later in life. But Rojo's dramatic abilities bring it to life and the final seconds - the sacrifice itself - are frighteningly executed. The only thing I didn't like about the production were the costumes by Yolanda Sonnabend - new for ENB, they seemed very muted and not so strange perhaps. How they relate to the originals from 1962 I know not, but Sonnabend normally impresses me.
Overall it was a strong programme and I hope it sells out whenever it goes - which is Bristol, Oxford, Manchester and London as it happens. Listings contains full details.