Reunion: Senseless Kindness; Laid in Earth; Take Five Blues; Echoes; Jolly Folly

Yuri Possokhov; Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui; Stina Quagebeur; Russell Maliphant; Arielle Smith
English National Ballet
Sadler's Wells

Alison McWhinney, Isaac Hernández, Emma Hawes and Francesco Gabriele Frola in Senseless Kindness Credit: Laurent Liotardo
Francesco Gabriele Frola and Isaac Hernández in Senseless Kindness Credit: Laurent Liotardo
English National Ballet Dancers in Take Five Blues Credit: Laurent Liotardo
Jeffrey Cirio and James Streeter in Laid in Earth Credit: Laurent Liotardo
Precious Adams in Laid in Earth Credit: Laurent Liotardo
Erina Takahashi and James Streeter in Laid in Earth Credit: Laurent Liotardo
Fernanda Oliveira and Fabian Reimair in Echoes Credit: Laurent Liotardo
English National Ballet Dancers in Echoes Credit: Laurent Liotardo
English National Ballet Dancers in Jolly Folly Credit: Laurent Liotardo
Rhys Antoni Yeomans in Jolly Folly Credit: Laurent Liotardo

What a reception! What a welcome! Cheering, clapping, stamping, grateful speeches, and smiling dancers, and what a difference seeing the programme, commissioned for the screen at the end of last year during lockdown by astute AD Tamara Rojo, live on stage. Five dance films constricted by the small screen come to glorious breathing life on the Sadler’s Wells stage. The difference is a question of relative scale: the audience in its rightful place, the stage larger than life.

The running order has been slightly changed, but what strikes me again, as it did before, is that the female choreographers bring much needed joy to the dance and dancers, whilst the males are earnest, ponderous and grave.

Yuri Possokhov has chosen to choreograph to Shostakovich (Piano Trio No 1, op.8 played live) for the first time, he says (there are short films to introduce each piece), and he is right to do so. Shostakovich lived through the dark times in Soviet history described in Vasily Grossman’s epic 900-page Life and Fate, which inspired Possokhov's piece Senseless Kindness.

As Julian Barnes distils Shostakovich’s anxiety in his 180-page book The Noise of Time, so does Possokhov distil the sad mood (if not the tragedy) of Grossman’s hefty work in fifteen minutes of soulful movement. Two couples (Isaac Hernández and Alison McWhinney, Francesco Gabriele Frola and Emma Hawes), under lighting (David Richardson) streaming through patterned grills (church or mosque), connect, support and mirror each other with gentle lifts, soft arms, devotion, love and longing.

Next comes the supernatural from Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, which is softened by being on the stage some distance away—the close-up detail on screen is swallowed up by space, and all the better for it, more human. Purcell’s famous lament, that funereal aria from Dido and Aeneas, sets the twilight zone between this and the underworld and gives the piece its title, Laid in Earth.

Maybe timely in these funereal times, but depressing in its grief: again two couples interact. Visitors meet at that crossing over place in front of a dead tree (Waiting for Godot?), and again the dance is beautiful and heartfelt, supple and acrobatic. Husband and wife team James Streeter and Erina Takahashi bring poignancy, Jeffrey Cirio something of The Messenger from MacMillan’s Song of the Earth, and Precious Adams seems a stern goddess in red and gold.

Thankfully, Stina Quagebeur’s Take Five Blues drives the blues away. A dancer with the company and a choreographer, she knows her eight-strong team well, their strengths, and she wants her piece to be fun, she says, and fun it is. A night out at a dance club, it has a freshness about it: a posse of five men and three women (on pointe) challenging each other to a jaunty jazzy music, a riff on Bach and Dave Brubeck. Full of Jerome Robbins-style energy that is infectious, and don't we sloths need that! The audience is ecstatic.

Russell Maliphant’s mystical, mysterious and sombre Echoes puts a meditative damper on that. A dark space darkly lit by Panagiotis Tomaras, lighting that swirls and swallows the dancers, optical illusion lighting that distracts the eye. Seven dancers, with Fernanda Oliveira and Fabian Reimair in the lead, in Stevie Stewart’s baggy monk-like trousers and white tops, form and reform in shapely patterns. Oliveira says it’s like an ocean, classical and contemporary dance grounded together, and one does see ocean spume, or maybe its blossom, in Tomaras’s every widening floor light paintings. I think of Scylla and Charybdis of Greek legend.

And finally, Arielle Smith’s Jolly Folly—what a great title for a piece of escapism. We could all do with some of that. She said she wanted to put smiles on our faces, and she does, she does. Music from the Klazz Brothers that has me almost out of my seat, Cuban rhythm, funky beat, slick tempo. Eight dancers (three female, five male), but if feels like more, give high octane performances and look to be enjoying themselves, though Joseph Caley says it’s more exhausting doing it live than on film, but none of them holds back.

All in unisex black and white tuxedos, this is prime Hollywood entertainment: cabaret, boxing ring mock fight, funny Max Wall and Charlie Chaplin walks, witty shoulder shrugs, leaps worthy of the Nicholas Brothers, deft precision, and smiles a joy to behold. Genial, extroverted, accessible, the audience is with them all the way—this is a party. There is a clever built-in hiatus, which the audience takes as the end… and then there is more. What a treat! Smith has us eating out of her hands: she deserves the whistles and ear-splitting shouts.

English National Ballet, on the very first day of the easing of lockdown, serves up just what the doctor ordered for our emotional health. I go home revived. Do go and see them, there is still time, you won’t regret it.

Reviewer: Vera Liber