English National Ballet, Mayflower Theatre, London

Morris major

Nadine Meisner
Tuesday 19 November 2002 01:00

The US choreographer Mark Morris may be the hottest property in the land of dance, coveted on both sides of the Atlantic, but his work has long been absent from the repertoires of British ballet companies. As if to make up for this lacuna, the past three weeks have seen his debut not just in one of our leading companies, but two.

First was the Royal Ballet with Gong, made for American Ballet Theatre; now here comes English National Ballet with Drink To Me Only With Thine Eyes, an older piece (1988) also for ABT, which ENB is showing on an unmissable triple bill with Christopher Hampson's gleaming Double Concerto and Kenneth MacMillan's Rite of Spring. Morris's ballet uses six men and six women, and while the British cast does not include the celebrity likes of Mikhail Baryshnikov and Julio Bocca, they dance magnificently, etching Morris's sharp dance pictures with the bright energy of Olympian gods at play. Driven by Virgil Thomson's piano Etudes, the performers enter and exit, engaging in brief, smoothly segued sequences. These are highly active studies in contrast and echo; their unforgettably graphic quality all the more remarkable for the smiling simplicity and directness of Morris's presentation. There is no décor, no elaborate costuming, only a pianist (Jonathan Still) centre stage and dancers in unfussy white dresses or trousers.

Erina Takahashi's pert solo, feet precisely on the music's pulse, sporadically enlarges into a trio and forms a mirror symmetry with the earlier dancing of three men, led by Cameron McMillan. Formerly with the Royal New Zealand Ballet, McMillan is quite a find: tall and strong, the extensions of his solo performed with wonderfully assertive, greedy amplitude. Morris mixes academic ballet with unexpected twists to produce an unbuttoned, fresh classicism that is engagingly unpretentious. It eschews the grand, superficial sweep, yet like Jane Austen's three inches of ivory, it contains within its tight, modest boundaries a lucidly articulated, nuanced complexity of pattern and structure. This is a miniature with the internal scale of an epic.

MacMillan's Rite of Spring can only be epic, given the size of Stravinsky's score. (Anthony Twiner's conducting made ENB's orchestra sound twice its size.) Performed as part of the ongoing MacMillan anniversary celebrations, MacMillan's choreography goes way beyond its ballet base into a splayed, angular primitivism. The impact may not be as visceral as Pina Bausch's famous version but the groupings still transcend their decorative contours to hit you full face. When Sarah McIlroy begins her dance to death, she is watched by the rest of her tribe with a mesmerised fascination that is matched by the audience, sitting hushed and tense like spectators at a bullfight.

Touring to Manchester Opera House (0161 242 2509) 19-20 Nov (triple bill) and 21-23 Nov ('Nutcracker'); London Coliseum (020-7632 8300) 3-7 Dec and 12 Dec to 4 Jan ('Nutcracker') and 9-11 Dec (triple bill)

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