Dangerous Dancing

Tamara Rojo is a woman with a mission to strip away ballet’s perceived sugar-coated shell and reveal the bitter-sweet heart of dance. Posters in the London underground have been preparing her way for months. They might look like angels; but they “dance like demons.”

Rojo’s triple bill Ecstasy and Death which premiered at the Coliseum on 18 April, certainly focussed more on the demonic than the angelic. From the opening sequence of Jiří Kylián’s Petite Mort, in which six men in flesh-coloured corsets flexed and sliced with their individual fencing foils, it was clear that the audience was in for something very adult, very sophisticated and very European.

Photography by David Jensen

The twelve dancers cast in ENB’s first ever performance of Kylian’s classic were clearly nervous and a bit outside their comfort zone clad only in nude underwear. But what they created was a sensual tapestry of barefoot modern dance and Neoclassical ballet interwoven with two of Mozart’s serene piano concertos. There were dramatic and humorous props: the swishing rapiers, a billowing silken wave to cloak the stage and giant sculpted panniered dresses, like exoskeletons, out of which the women climbed in their basques and knickers. Flesh moved against flesh, feet were flexed and stretched, sinewy legs splayed, muscles hardened and backs arched. This was ballet on the cusp of gymnastics and it was beautiful. Without tights or satin shoes, it was pure dance between men and women of heroic strength, partnering each other in dignified and intimate harmony: for Art’s sake.

Petite Mort was a northern European post-modern comment on gender stereotyping. What followed was much less egalitarian take on gender relations. Le Jeune Homme et la Mort was expressionist dance-drama in the film noir tradition. A darkly glamorous pas de deux set to Bach’s stern Passacaglia, it featured the highlight of my evening, Nicholas Le Riche’s electrifying portrayal of the tortured Young Man on the knife-edge of insanity. Watching Le Riche was like seeing the almost unbearable repressed sexuality of Nijinsky’s Faun and the hunched pathos of the puppet Petrushka  poured into the doomed youth’s powerfully muscular but helplessly passive body in rolled up denim dungarees. Rojo’s sadistic and raunchy personification of Death in her slinky yellow dress with smouldering cigarette was a devastating subversion of the feminine ideal of the ballerina. At the end, masked and trailing red and white robes, Rojo, the apotheosis of the dominatrix, embodied the woman incarnate on the front of the programme.

Photography by David Jensen

 

It was left to the Company to express the “Ecstasy” theme, through Harald Lander’s crystal sharp Etudes, which encapsulated the history of ballet in a dramatically lit, seamless flow of divertissements developed from the daily ballet class. The Company loved dancing it for the sheer joy of displaying the brilliance of their technique, although the pace was remorseless. Amongst them Vadim Muntagirov danced as though his life depended on it, relishing the folk influence on his native Russia’s bravura style of male dancing.  Hurling himself into his leaps and turns he shone, not from the need to project his performance, but from within; relishing his almost god-like talent.

Rojo’s raison d’etre for this triple bill was to “make audiences hold their breath” and to “take ballet to a different level” This feisty Spanish diva certainly achieved her goal and the audience loved it. ENB has embarked on an exciting new journey.

Fiona Fraser