Dance to the Death

Two men circle each other.  A sudden pair of staccato notes on the double bass interrupts them.   They stand immobile and hold each other’s gaze defiantly.  Two more harsh notes punctuate the silence and they stamp the ground like bulls spoiling for a fight, or stags about to lock antlers.   Moments later, one trips the other from behind and hooks him into an arm- lock.  ContraVersus, a new male pas de deux by English National Ballet Junior Soloist, James Streeter, is taking form in one of English National Ballet London studios.


ContraVersus, interprets through movement one of the defining moments in the Russian verse-novel Eugene Onegin, by Alexander Pushkin, adapted for opera by Tchaikovsky. Streeter is creating the 7-minute piece as part of an initiative between English National Ballet and Opera Holland Park to showcase new choreographic talent in West London dance companies.

The dancers Streeter is working with are artists, Richard Bermange and Daniel Hay-Gordon. Bermange is cast as the urbane and cynical Onegin, and Hay-Gordon, Onegin’s friend, the provincial poet Lensky. The music for the ContraVersus has been specially composed for strings by composer Janine Forester.  In his excitement Streeter originally wanted to make a potted version of the whole story, but thought better of it and chose instead to focus on Lensky’s murder.

In Pushin’s story Lensky is humiliated by Onegin’s flirtation with his fiancée and challenges him to a duel. The arrogant Onegin doesn’t take it seriously, and kills him almost by accident. Although the original murder weapon is a pistol, Streeter wants to make the duel much more physical, as befits a pas de deux between two men.

Drawing inspiration from the Brazilian martial art, Capoeira, bull-fighting, and animal behaviour, Streeter is concerned to make the drama real and express the two men’s psychological states. He is constantly putting himself in the role of the two men as he works, asking “what would I do?”  In a hostile situation he says “everyone walks around to suss out the enemy.  If someone comes into your space it puts you on edge.”  Thus the play of proximity is important in building the drama, from the approaching, retreating and circling, to the invasion of that space which leads to deadly conflict.

The pace is furious as the men twist and tumble, independently and then in unison, using each other’s strength for balances and lifts. The costuming, black trousers and bare chests will recall outgoing Artistic Director Wayne Eagling’s Men Y Men. However Streeter’s choreography is much more raw. Although there are wistful passages which remember Onegin and Lensky’s former friendship, the movement is driven forward by pent-up aggression, and the urgency of Forester’s emotionally-charged music.

ContraVersus will be performed at Dance Holland Park – Choreographic Showcase Saturday 7 July, to book tickets for the performance premiere at Opera Holland Park, click here

Fiona Fraser