Ecstasy and Death, by Chantal Guevara

If you asked me to devise my ideal triple bill, Jiri Kylian and Roland Petit would be way at the top of the list – and I’m certainly not alone in that. So English National Ballet’s first triple bill under Tamara Rojo’s leadership is a dream come true, with Jiri Kylian’s Petite Mort and Roland Petit’s Le Jeune Homme et la Mort. And as English National Ballet is fundamentally a classical ballet company, it was only fitting that the Ecstasy & Death programme concluded with Harald Lander’s Études, a quirky insight into the workings of a ballet company.

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Photography by Chantal Guevara

Petite Mort by Jiri Kylian opened in perfect silence, with six men walking backwards, each balancing a sword on a single fingertip. And in that perfect silence, we heard the sounds of the swords slicing through the air, as the dancers moved between a series of sword-driven friezes.

Jiri Kylian is a master at creating beautiful yet interesting movement, focussing on the sculptural effects of his choreography. And Petite Mort is a perfect example of this; “petite mort”, “little death” in French, also means an orgasm in French and Arabic, and this sets the theme for the work, which explores a diverse range of male and female interaction and poses suggesting frozen ecstasy.

With the dancers divided into pairs, each couple communicates in their own unique way, while props often become a second or third-party, whether the theatrical dresses-on-wheels, or swords.

While Jiri Kylian is closely associated with more modern companies such as Nederlands Dans Theater, his blending of classical movement in a modern context is beautifully suited to the fluidity and grace of English National Ballet’s dancers, making all movement flow seamlessly, with all of Kylian’s playfulness and quirks.

Ending way too abruptly, Petite Mort is a work to savour, both the imagery and beautiful performances from all dancers throughout.

One of the greatest tragedies of English ballet is that Roland Petit’s work is too rarely performed over here. English National Ballet performed a triple bill of Roland Petit’s works in July 2011, barely two weeks after his death, with Ivan Vasiliev guesting in the male role. And there lies the challenge of Le Jeune Homme et la Mort: previously performed by the likes of Nureyev, Baryshnikov and Vasiliev, its associated with the very cream of male ballet dancers, and demands both virtuosity and compelling acting ability.

Photography by Chantal Guevara

At 41, and with his retirement from Paris Opéra Ballet imminent, Nicolas Le Riche is at the peak of his career, making ‘Le Jeune Homme’ an exhilarating experience to watch, grabbing you by the neck from the opening scenes of him smoking idly in bed and not letting go until the very end.

It’s a stylised yet naturalistic work: Le Riche repeatedly holds his wrist to his ear, and shifts his knees inwards and outwards. Meanwhile, in his opening solo, his character is reaching, yearning, defeated and trapped in his little attic room.

Tamara Rojo’s character – a woman in a yellow dress with a black bob and black gloves – in turn teases, seduces and captivates him, exploiting his inner vulnerabilities to the point where she has him completely under her spell, idly ordering him about the space until he is completely broken. Rojo portrays a cruel savagery, luxuriating in her power which increases as he declines further until his suicide, orchestrated by her.

The final work of the programme, Études is a work for classical ballet fans and classical-ballet-curious, offering the audience an insight into the workings of a ballet company, from the warmup stage of daily class to technique work and ongoing rehearsals.

Photography by Chantal Guevara

The warmup stages appear to focus more on the effect of the dancers’ movements in relation to the creative use of lighting rather than on the choreography itself, which helps to make Études more relevant to modern audiences.

The warmup over, the dancers proceed to rehearse excerpts of well-known classics – which will delight classical ballet fans, but allude those, like me, who’ve never actually seen any of them. If you fall into the latter category, there are aspects to appreciate such as watching seven dancers executing perfect turns in unison, and the indefatigable Erina Takahashi.

Quite simply, this is one of the best programmes of modern ballet you could hope to watch in London.

Review and Photography by Chantal Guevara