English National Ballet in Australia: big stars shine on a small stage

Tucked away within the bookends of Apollo and Suite en blanc, a calm, cool pas de deux by Hans van Manen stole the evening.

Trois Gnoissiennes, choreographed to the minimalist music of Satie, was ideal for the small stage on which it was danced. It shone like an opalescent gemstone, with Adela Ramirez and Fabian Reimair dancing as if in a trance, with the barely suppressed suggestion of yearning and tension between them.

He holds her left foot in his right hand, his palm acting as a platform for her pointe shoe.

He grasps her upper arms and tilts her to the side.

As he lifts her high, her legs are rigidly held, her feet flexed like a doll’s.

What does it mean? That’s up to the individual watching, but whatever their interpretation, it seems to leave a spell on any audience as a whole.

Van Manen made the piece for the Dutch National Ballet in 1982. That’s nine years before Wayne Eagling became artistic director of that company. He’s now artistic director of English National Ballet and is clearly still influenced by his years in Amsterdam where van Manen played such a major role.

This is an odd time for ENB, with Eagling leaving the company in just two months after which Tamara Rojo takes over as artistic director.

It’s a tribute to his years at the company that ENB’s dancers are so impressive and assured.

His star couple, Daria Klimentova and Vadim Muntagirov are in Sydney along with fellow principals, Elena Glurdjidze, Dmitri Gruzdyev and Arionel Vargas, in a troupe of just 22 dancers.

On opening night at the new 500-seat Concourse Performing Arts Centre theatre in Chatswood, Klimentova and Muntagirov danced three times, first in Balanchine’s Apollo, with Klimentova as Terpsichore.

Like the production staged by Birmingham Royal Ballet, ENB ends the ballet with the climb up the black steps to Mount Olympus, so that the sunburst arabesque pose is brief before they move to the stairway to paradise.

Here, the stage shape and size detracted from the effect of the heavenly climb as the steps seemed too close to the audience, too clunky and the blue backdrop was not, as it should be, a concave cyclorama, representing the infinite blue sky.

Apollo, created by Balanchine when he was only 24 in 1928, remains a masterpiece that I could watch into infinity if such a thing was possible.

Poetic, sensuous and noble, Apollo is replete with gestures that are intimate as well as witty, with the muses clapping their hands as a signal for Apollo to rest his head on their palms, Apollo lifting the muses’s feet, the shuffling movements of the muses, Apollo throwing his arms upwards as he jumps in fifth position, and the most beautiful image of Terpsichore “swimming” as she rests on Apollo’s back.

All four dancers (Anais Chalendard was Polyphonia and Adela Ramirez was Calliope) gave a faultless performance, with Klimentova’s warmth and connection with the audience particularly clear.

Following Trois Gnoissiennes, was the Act One bedroom pas de deux from Manon, again restrained in space on that stage, but with a heart stopping opening moment when Glurdjidze bourréed backwards with the rapidity of a dragonfly in urgent search for her supper.

How, though, can one bring this pas de deux to life out of context with no bed, only a writing desk for a prop, no build up of sexual tension, culminating in this moment of bliss, no development of the characters of Manon and Des Grieux?

I don’t believe this pas de deux is an ideal piece to include in a series of divertissements, especially as it was followed by the king of all party pieces, the Black Swan pas de deux from Swan Lake.

In this, Klimentova claimed the stage as Odile, again showing her luminous and expressive personality, while also struggling once with the technical challenges. There has been some mention of this in two press reviews, with both mentioning possible jet lag. (The dancers flew from London arriving on Tuesday night and opening night followed on Friday).

Could the floor and the fairly primitive lighting be partly to blame for any small mishaps? Perhaps the floor was not fully sprung under the Tarkett.

Despite having to pull back to fit his variation to the stage space, Muntagirov showed the exceptional technique and stage presence that have made him a star at only 23. With luck, he has 15 more years ahead of him – Rojo might have to work hard to keep him at home in London considering he is already guesting in principal roles at American Ballet Theatre.

Maina Gielgud’s staging of Suite en blanc was danced by just 16 dancers, so the impact of the landscape opening scene, when an array of dancers posed on various levels on the black steps upstage was lost, but within the confines of numbers and space available the dancers epitomised the neoclassical lines, the wit, and the sassiness of Serge Lifar’s 1943 showcase, in particular Glurdjidze in Cigarette, Yonah Acosta with the Mazurka, Klimentova and Muntagirov’s pas de deux and Chalendard’s Flute.

Despite the bit-of-this, bit-of-that repertoire, there was a thread pulling the evening together and it was the ghost of Balanchine who danced as a child in Petipa’s ballets, who created Apollo, and who cast Serge Lifar as his first Apollo.

The season, which continues until June 17, is more than 90 per cent sold out, a result that shows just how much Australian audiences crave classical ballet.