English National Ballet's celebration of Roland Petit became sadly timely with the French choreographer's death earlier this month.
This triple bill now serves as an obituary on stage, showing off Petit's sense of theatre, his eye for strong personality in dance and design.
The evening is dominated by Carmen, perhaps his most famous work. The title role, created in 1949 for his wife Zizi Jeanmaire, is a bold image of Bizet's heroine. Like Jeanmaire, English National Ballet's Begoña Cao wears her hair cropped as short as her costume. Petit's choreography puts Carmen's allure and defiance into her legs, which stalk and stamp out rhythms on pointe. Carmen's hips dip and thrust as she eyes prospective lovers over the top of her fan. Cao's big eyes and frank presence make her a dynamic Carmen. She rubs up against Fabian Reimair's Don José, arching a strong back in Petit's famously explicit choreography.
Design was always important to Petit. Antoni Clavé's set and costumes have a pungent, poster quality, with sharp colours and dashing lines. Zigzag lines make the women's bodices stand out; little lanterns glow in the tavern scene.
Carmen is a ballet of broad and witty strokes. There's a cabaret energy to Petit's group scenes, as his rough-haired corps de ballet swing chairs and strut. Bizet's score is arranged with a swagger, the big tunes brought in to make an immediate theatrical point. Petit fits his big gestures to the music's flourishes; he tends not to dig deeper.
A few roles have gone over the top, with an exaggerated Toreador from James Streeter. Overall, ENB give a vigorous performance, responding to the ballet's colour and force.
L'Arlésienne, based on Alphonse Daudet's play, was created in 1974. The hero yearns for something offstage, despite his girlfriend's attempts to comfort and keep him. Behind them, a line of dancers stamp and twist in unison. Those big blocks of dance echo Nijinska's Les Noces, though without Nijinska's elemental power. Estaban Berlanga throws himself into the hero role, building overwrought emotions through virtuoso steps.
Virtuoso men queue up to dance Le Jeune Homme et la Mort and Jonah Acosta looks young and vulnerable, while making explosive use of his technique. As he hangs himself, Georges Wakhévitch's garret set flies out to reveal a Paris skyline, lit up by winking neon. It's a grand gesture, a coup de théâtre that is very Petit.