English National Ballet

"Drink To Me Only With Thine Eyes",
"Melody On The Move", "The Rite Of Spring"

by Stuart Sweeney

July 2003 -- Sadler's Wells, London


English National Ballet visit Sadler's Wells for the second time this year with a Triple Bill and Ronald Hynd’s attractive production of “Coppélia”. The Mixed Bill has two 20th century masterpieces and a new commission, which was rapturously received by the full house. So, it should have been a damn near perfect evening. However, the new work, “Melody on the Move” by Michael Corder was a major disappointment for me.

But let’s start on a positive note. “Drink To Me Only With Thine Eyes” is one of the most successful ballet works by Mark Morris, with imaginative patterns for the 12 dancers and gentle witticisms about exits and entrances. All this is overlaid on a playful, neo-classical base and set to a selection Virgil Thomson’s idiosyncratic Etudes, played on-stage, with exquisite phrasing, by Jonathan Still. The ballet also has the quality of gathering strength as it progresses and the calm finale to a variation on the title song presents its own variations on classical symmetry with dancers taking it in turns to move freely through the patterns. Some of the ENB dancers were performing the work for the first time and need more time to fully reflect the musicality and verve of Morris’ creation, but Jan Erik Wikström was assured in the role created for Baryshnikov. In 1993, Joan Acocella wrote that “Drink to Me” is, “…arguably the freshest, most original ballet produced in America since the death of Balanchine,” and it remains a strong contender for that accolade.

For the first time, I saw MacMillan’s “Rite of Spring” from the balcony and it looked even better than I remembered, with the riveting patterns of the large-scale ensemble sections that dominate the work. We see packed concentric rings, massed phalanxes advancing with menace, a snake of seated dancers and the ensemble stretched out on the entire Sadler’s floor, changing pattern every few seconds. Forty years old, it still has a “shock of the new” punch and there were gasps around me at the savage movement with bottoms resolutely stuck out, breaching every rule of the ballet class. The Chosen One for this performance was Erina Takahashi and her child like frame produced a newly disturbing effect, but human sacrifice shouldn’t be cosy. Despite her tiny size she commanded the final part of the work and as she is thrown high in the air at the very end, there was a collective start from the audience.

And so to the soft centre of this triple bill. Michael Corder describes himself as an endangered species, a classical ballet choreographer. This week he told The Times that companies rely on, “a small pool of fashionable contemporary choreographers to come in and make high-impact pieces that are often musically superficial and can even endanger the dancers. It creates a one-size-fits-all style that gets boring.” Tough words Mr Corder. Well I have to report that several sections of “Melody on the Move” feature some of the dullest new choreography I have seen these past few years.

The 30s and 40s costumes and sets are rich and beautiful. The familiar tunes, from the light music repertory, are agreeable with Corder following other choreographers in the past decade to select a similar musical frame. Things get off to an entertaining if conventional start with a large ballroom group in gorgeous evening dress. The next dance, to “Music on the Move” itself, includes fouettes by Simone Clark in rubber gloves armed with a duster and trios of men, women and carpet cleaners that had me grinning. “Jumping Bean” is also fun with Dimitri Gruzdyev and Yat-Sen Chang hopping about attired in suits and bowlers and wielding umbrellas and yes, there is a mock sword fight.

So far so good and I thought that perhaps all would turn out fine. However, jokes give way to choreography and the problems set in. Apart from some fun with Gary Avis in an office, the remaining sections feature a dull quartet and an equally undistinguished sextet. Most disappointing was a romantic duet for Agnes Oakes and Thomas Edur, justifiably most people’s favourite ballet couple. This pedestrian, saccharine pas de deux was “nice”, which is probably the most damning criticism you can make of an artwork. The music for the pas de deux, “The Girl from Corsica”, has an exotic flavour that is nowhere reflected in the steps and I failed to see a hint of innovative or distinctive movement within the classical ballet palette employed. To close, there is a messy grand finale with reprises of the earlier sections and some 40 bodies fighting for space on the Sadler’s stage.

Everybody cheered the individual sections and the curtain call - well, almost everybody. This is a nostalgic fantasy piece, but that would be OK if the choreography was imaginative, rather than mundane. Someone placed “Melody on the Move” in the same category as Bintley’s “The Nutcracker Sweeties”. I think Bintley should sue.

It was good to see a full house for a London triple bill and perhaps this will encourage the Company to schedule more performances in future. The Morris and MacMillan works fully justified my visit and the vast majority of those present were delighted with the Corder. ENB’s mixed bills have become one of the treats of the London ballet season and new works from Cathy Marston, Wayne McGregor and Christopher Hampson's "Double Concerto", but not his dire "Trapeeze", have enriched the repertory. Some of the commissions striving for accessibility have been less successful artistically, even if they have proved popular. Nevertheless, on a limited budget for a company of this size, ENB is providing a much-needed platform for new UK ballet choreography.


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