Rite of passage for a bold company: ENB dances a devastating Pina Bausch Sacre

In the Middle/ Adagio Hammerklavier/ The Rite of Spring ****

English National Ballet, Sadler’s Wells, 25th March 2017

Tamara Rojo has turned English National Ballet into a must-see company. The big draw in this new ENB triple bill was undoubtedly The Rite of Spring. It is a major coup for Rojo that she has secured permission for her company to dance Pina Bausch’s iconic version for the first time. Created in 1975, for years only Tanztheater Wuppertal, Bausch’s own company, was permitted to perform it. When Paris Opéra Ballet took on the work, Bausch herself oversaw the casting. It’s a measure of Rojo’s bold vision as artistic director that ENB is the first British company to share custody.

Pina Bausch’s Le Sacre du printemps by English National Ballet
© Laurent Liotardo

The Guardian once described Pina Bausch as the “high priestess of dance theatre” and a sense of fevered anticipation certainly buzzed around Sadler’s Wells during the second interval. Giant wheelie bins dumped enormous quantities of peat onto the stage, which was then meticulously raked by fourteen attendants like a horticulturally choreographed episode of Gardener’s World.

Bausch physicalises Stravinsky’s score in a visceral, shattering way, leagues beyond the reconstruction of the original Nijinsky choreography, with its shuffling, turned-in toes, which I saw the Mariinsky dance back in 2003. Here, Bausch’s choreography is as shocking as Stravinsky’s earthy score. As the bassoon unfurls its wailing opening solo, a single woman is resting on a scarlet slip, like spilt blood on the ground. She seems to be the guardian of the dress, protecting it. Suddenly, other woman join her, darting into beams of light, convulsed with fear. These women know what is coming; motifs of breast-beating and self-flagellation recur throughout. They huddle together in tight clusters, taking turns to break away and express their individual fear. Predatory men arrive and perform a ritualistic dance, during which the women hurl themselves into dramatic lifts, legs wrapped around the mens’ shoulders, panting, gasping. It has a frenzied, primitive power that Rojo’s very young company threw itself into wholeheartedly, kicking up the dirt savagely.

Pina Bausch’s Le Sacre du printemps by English National Ballet
© Laurent Liotardo

In Part 2, the Chief selects the Chosen One – several women present themselves, holding the red slip, until he suddenly, violently clutches one by the shoulders. Bausch asked: “How would it be to dance knowing you have to die? The Chosen One is special, but she dances knowing the end is death.” Young Francesca Velicu, displaying unsettling vulnerability, danced herself to death as The Chosen One with a child-like terror in her eyes. A performance that really dealt a punch to the stomach.

Pina Bausch’s Le Sacre du printemps by English National Ballet
© Laurent Liotardo

I found this as powerful, as devastating a performance as that of Sasha Waltz’s Sacre – a work that draws on many of Bausch’s traits – back in 2015. An advantage of this version was that Stravinsky’s score was played live by the ENB Philharmonic, conducted by Gavin Sutherland (although when I saw the Mariinsky in Cardiff last year, they had Gergiev at the helm, who always brings an extra frisson of primeval excitement).

Isaac Hernández in In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated
© Laurent Liotardo

This triple bill has been described in some quarters as another “Modern Masters”, yet the youngest item on the programme – William Forsythe’s In the middle, somewhat elevated – is already 30 years old. Commissioned by Rudolf Nureyev for the Paris Opéra Ballet in 1987, it’s fast and angular, with off-kilter balances catching you unawares. Although danced en pointe it is a sharp, thrusting work, set to Thom Willems crunching electronic score. A mood of competition and jealousy pervades, dancers staring each other out. While one pair of trio is dancing, another is already taking place to push them from the spotlight. Isaac Hernández was on his cleanest form, almost nonchalant in his solo, a quality not always achieved elsewhere, although blond-bobbed Tiffany Hedman, ate up the Sadler’s Wells stage with her enormous stretches.

English National Ballet in Adagio Hammerklavier
© Laurent Liotardo

Hans van Manen’s Adagio Hammerklavier formed the middle work of the evening, its icy restraint providing necessary balance to the programme. A billowing curtain flutters constantly as three couple dance, sometimes in parallel, sometimes in duet. The choreography can be cool and distant – lifts where the female dancers freeze mid-flight, like mannequins, controlled, manipulated by their male partners – which seem at odds when set to one of Beethoven’s most intimate and personal adagios, eloquently played by Olga Khoziainova. But the slow arabesques, attitudes and turns, with Katja Khaniukova, sensitively partnered by Fernando Bufalá, and Laurretta Summerscales particularly impressive, gradually drew me into this sombre work.

An ambitious programme and a splendid achievement.

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