The New English Ballet Theatre (NEBT) was only launched in 2011 but has already established its reputation for being all about the ‘new’: encouraging emerging dancers, reaching new audiences and commissioning new ballets every season. The double bill which they presented on the stage of the Peacock Theatre was a perfect showcase for what makes them an exciting addition to the UK ballet scene.
The first part consisted of a dynamic reinterpretation of The Four Seasons by choreographer Jenna Lee. This ballet was premiered last year by NEBT and I can see it becoming something of a signature piece for them, as it is an excellent calling card for a young and lively company.
Vivaldi’s music has been used so much in advertising and films that it has become almost something of a cliché but it finds a new lease of life in the imaginative contemporary reinterpretation by composer Max Richter. For the most part, Lee’s choreography matches the music perfectly, as do the clever changes of costume and lighting. The cast has all the fizz and panache required for this piece. You’ll find great freshness and vitality in the Spring section, intricate combinations of pas de deux and group work in Summer, dreamy and joyful moments in Autumn. My favourite part was probably Winter, which moves from the staccato, jagged rhythms and shapes of the first movement, with the full cast moving across the stage in a seemingly uncoordinated but in actual fact quite precise mess, like a flurry of snowflakes, to the lyrical beauty of the second movement – one single ballerina supported by four male dancers, then finally the eerie, ice-cold feel of the third movement.
Jenna Lee makes no secret of the fact that she is a neo-classical choreographer and for the most part, this ballet displayed the beautiful classical lines which could have been created at any point a hundred years ago. There were one or two nods to contemporary dance influences, such as throwing the female partners to the ground or crawling backward on the floor for the male dancers during the Summer movement, which felt odd and out of place, almost as though trying too hard to bring in contemporary style at all costs. Far more successful, I thought, was the deliberate lack of coordination in most of the group work, which gave it a very modern feel. This was not the ‘all moving as one’ of classical ballet, but a more individualistic and bold approach, particularly in the canon of two couples in the 2nd movement of Summer, where they mirror each others’ moves perfectly, but just a few beats later.
The versatility of the cast soon became apparent, because the second part, Wayne Eagling’s Remembrance, has a very different feel to it. It is a new piece commissioned especially to commemorate the end of the First World War, a short narrative ballet inspired by the story of Dame Marie Rambert’s life during the Great War and set to Handel’s Ode for St Cecilia’s Day. Although it was delightful to have The English Concert Orchestra with chorus and soloists playing live, it did distract somewhat from the dancing. If this becomes part of the regular repertoire in future, it would be preferable to have it danced to the recorded version. However, for a gala performance, the live voices make for an incredibly moving experience.
The central theme is the relationship between Marie Rambert and Ashley Dukes, who met and married during the First World War. Although they became pillars of the London art scene in the 1920s and 30s, they were separated by the war just after their wedding, when Dukes had to go back to the front in 1918. The choreographer says that he didn’t intend this to be a biography of a specific person, but rather the feelings of all women and married couples at the time – the fear, the uncertainty, the devastating loneliness. He certainly succeeds in transforming the personal story into the universal. The first scene, set in a dance studio, with Dukes becoming jealous of the close dancing partnership between his wife and one of the male leads, brought to mind the humour of classical ballets such as La Fille mal gardée but feels a little gratuitous in this context. Perhaps it was intended to provide a happy contrast with the somber tone of what is about to follow, but for me, the beauty of this ballet really gets going when the young couple’s reconciliation pas de deux is interrupted by the soldier handing over the telegram recalling Dukes to the front.
The Cossack-inspired, acrobatic dancing of the soldiers on the front line seemed too jaunty at first glance, but its place in the grander scheme of things becomes apparent when there is a reprise of their dances in the final scenes, as the soldiers return from war, their bodies and minds broken by the experience. No trace of boldness and showing off here — the same movements are now dragged down by gravity, their limbs seem to flail around.
Perhaps the most poignant scene is the one where Marie is wandering through the streets of London, seeing her husband’s face everywhere, but being continually disappointed. Set against the soaring tones of Welsh soprano Fflur Wyn, Alessia Lugoboni’s dance of a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown was expressive to the point of heartbreak. Alexander Nuttall in the role of Ashley Dukes also deserves a special mention: his slightly bewildered puppyish movements in the first scene soon giving way to an imposing presence, the calm in the eye of the storm.
There is one more performance in London on Saturday 29th and then a performance in Birmingham on the 1st of October, but I expect there will be special performances and a tour during November with Remembrance in particular. My verdict: don’t miss it!