English National Ballet, Royal Opera House, London

A mouthwatering Balanchine sandwich

John Percival
Sunday 26 January 2014 06:08

Uncle Pat would have been proud. That nickname refers to Anton Dolin, Britain's first international ballet star, and founder of Festival Ballet as a company aiming to dance the best popular classics at the highest standards for the widest audience. Half a century on, under the new title of English National Ballet, they are still at it very successfully, and last week (thanks to the impresarios Victor and Lilian Hochhauser) they performed for the first time at the Royal Opera House.

The programme they gave compares favourably for entertainment value, choreographic quality, and variety within cohesiveness with the Royal Ballet's mixed bills all this season; to my mind, only one of them can compete. The musical combination of Stravinsky, Poulenc and Gershwin is rewarding, too. Perhaps having two Balanchine ballets in one show is not ideal, but they are sufficiently unlike for this not to matter.

If one of them had to go, I would be forced to pick Apollo. This is a great work but Anthony Twiner conducts it at a lugubrious tempo, and Thomas Edur gives a rather sanctimonious account of the title role. Also, they have to use the shortened version that the choreographer came to prefer; a mistake on his part, especially in truncating the music.

I certainly would not want to lose Who Cares?, Balanchine's delicious tribute to Broadway in terms of classical ballet. The men especially are good in this; not only Dmitri Gruzdyev, manfully insouciant in the arduous lead part, but equally the five supporting chaps in the opening section (do I detect the inspiration of ballet master David Wall here? The Royal Ballet must have been crazy to let him go). Among the leading women, Sarah McIlroy's solo has gorgeous spontaneity, and Begona Cao is quite edibly attractive in both the intense duet to "The man I love", and the skittering solo to "Fascinating rhythm".

To fit comfortably between two ballets by the master is quite a task, but the imaginative inventiveness of Christopher Hampson's Double Concerto does pretty well for itself. All the more so now that Daria Klimentova, recovered from injury, is back in the leading role created for her. She encompasses beautifully both the sharp accuracy and the expansive languour of the choreography, even a jazzy highlight, too, and she gives the ballet a warm rapture.

Her partner, Jan-Erik Wikstrom, deserves to be given a medal for the flair with which he continued his manège during a first-night lighting glitch, and the whole of the supporting cast is first-rate.

There has been much debate lately about the relevance of classic ballet to contemporary audiences. This whole programme is a strong argument in its favour. Now, we can compare what the English National Ballet makes of Swan Lake in its imminent annual season at the Albert Hall.

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