"Just do the steps, dear," George Balanchine famously used to instruct ballerinas who strained for expressiveness. The best Balanchine dancers, though, are those who, without overt emoting, find their own secret narrative or musical textures. They add extra individual depth; they make the choreography live.
With Balanchine's Who Cares?, a wittily classical, joyously laid-back finale to English National Ballet's nicely constructed triple bill, that matters a little less. As long as a dancer finds a jazzy lightness to weave through Gershwin's songs, the steps really can do the rest. You might wish for sharper, more unified contours in ENB's ensembles. But as soon as Begoña Cao makes her first entry, she lights up the performance, moving with a leggy spaciousness that contradicts her slender smallness. The sky darkens into night, the New York skyscrapers lean drunkenly behind her, and she shapes her duet to "The Man I Love" into romantic rapture, her eyes and smile gleaming blissfully.
She is spellbound by Dmitri Gruzdyev, the leading man, who divides his attentions among three women – Monica Perego and Sarah McIlroy the other two – with expert, if low-key, partnering. Russian-trained, more a darkly exciting Mercutio than a smooth Fred Astaire, he does not inhabit the loose American inflections with the women's natural ease. But who cares? The ballet still works its magic and sends its audience home elated.
Apollo should start the evening with another bang, but this is a Balanchine ballet in which the choreography is not dancer-proof. Without being invested with meaning, the celebrated steps become flatly vague sequences of mere dancing, and the first-night cast found little significance beyond the emblematic postures – the most famous being Apollo and Terpsichore's touching fingers, recalling Michelangelo's portrayal of Adam receiving the spark of life from God. It doesn't help that ENB's production is Balanchine's late revision, in which he muffled part of the narrative and removed all the scenery; nor does Anthony Twiner's conducting improve matters by ironing out all Stravinsky's contrasts, leaving us with only sleek, easy-listening swathes of strings.
Either way, although Thomas Edur's classical proportions and uncanny Greek profile make him look the part to perfection, he creates a bland impact, because his movement lacks purpose and juice. That criticism also applies to the three Muses, who need to tighten their phrasing, their thinking, their everything.
Following that dispiriting experience, the London premiere of Christopher Hampson's Double Concerto surged forward in a glorious blaze of sound – Poulenc's Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra played exhilaratingly – and dance. (The newly recruited Jan-Erik Wikström is quite a find.) Young Hampson's first large-scale ballet deploys its patterns with mature and exciting originality. He makes steps that are not just fluent, but fresh-seeming. In other words, he has Balanchine's gift for surprise, and, despite being situated between two master works, Double Concerto is never overshadowed.
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