English National Ballet/National Ballet of Canada

Marketing leaves nothing untouched in the twenty-first century. Tamara Rojo, the newly appointed director of English National Ballet, knows this well and proficiently plays the game. Thus for her first piece of programming, she has linked three works by an overarching title, appearing to give coherence to an evening that in reality has little.

Jirí Kylián’s Petite Mort (1991) has the full panoply of Kylián tics dancegoers have come to expect: gorgeous lighting (by Kylián and Joop Caboort), coups de théâtre (a bronze sheet snapped over an empty stage, then peeled back to reveal the dancers) and lyricism combined with a weighty, muscular attack in a series of splayed, legs-wide pas de deux and ensembles. As the curtain rises, six men dextrously manipulate fencing rapiers, obvious symbols for the phalluses implicit in the work’s title, before they are replaced by six women, shrouded by black ballgowns on castors, which frame and constrict them. The heavy-handed symbolism, combined with the music (two slow movements ripped from different Mozart piano concertos), creates a sense of slick stylishness, leaving the viewer by the end feeling that the whole is less than the sum of its parts.

Études, by Harald Lander, has been a company standard since 1955, racking up nearly 800 performances. It too concentrates on style over substance, although in more literal fashion as the company works its way through a formalized version of every dancer’s daily class, beginning with pliés at the barre, through centre-practice, turns and jumps. The music, Carl Czerny’s piano exercises for students (orchestrated by Knudåge Riisager), is also that of pedagogy rather than performance. Yet Lander takes these two plunkingly mundane elements and transcends their form by creating a meditation on the virtuosity of the everyday. Études can certainly be read merely as a party piece, a gala show of bravura. But it has lasted because it examines how performers build public personas out of private endeavour. The piece requires enormous technical achievement from its three leads, which was only intermittently present (Vadim Muntagirov alone acquitted himself with honour), but as a measure of where a company stands at any moment, it is revealing – perhaps excessively so.

Nicolas le Riche, a guest artist from Paris Opéra Ballet, can also find virtuosity in the everyday, and his star wattage made short work of Roland Petit’s Le Jeune Homme et la Mort, a nominally existential examination of love and death. A young man (le Riche) waits for his lover (Rojo); she is alternately indifferent and beguiling, luring him to suicide. When she reappears in a skull mask, she is death itself. It was hokum in 1946, in warracked Europe; it is hokum now, but le Riche dances it with raw passion and meticulous technique, an admirable and rarely achieved combination. Rojo, as company director, had no one to tell her to tone herself down: she was therefore sexy without producing any sense of foreboding, not ideal for the personification of death.

At Sadler’s Wells, the National Ballet of Canada made its first London appearance in twenty-six years, with Alexei Ratmansky’s new version of Romeo and Juliet. Ratmansky is one of the most acclaimed choreographers working at the moment (his first work for the Royal Ballet was reviewed in the TLS on March 8), and he is a rarity in the current dance world in that he has substantial experience of choreographing narrative ballets. Dance versions of Romeo and Juliet tend to focus either on the central love story or on the warring worlds of Capulet and Montague. (Kenneth MacMillan’s version manages to combine both threads, one reason it has become the standard production across the world.) Ratmansky removes the social context of the play almost entirely, giving us Verona-lite, with only a dozen or so townspeople, who remain undifferentiated. The sets, by Richard Hudson, are similarly neutral, relying on simple blocks of Renaissancefresco colours to convey place and time, although his costumes tip from simplicity into caricature, with the corps women in their striped dresses seeming to have wandered in from a production of Oklahoma!

And unfortunately, caricature prevails. Ratmansky trained at the Bolshoi, and was briefly its director, and the plot and acting follow the Bolshoi’s melodramatic silent-film style: there are visions of future events told in a sort of split-screen effect; an old-fashioned tableau ending; and the drama is conveyed by much shaking of fists and pointing fingers miming “Go, and never darken my doors again!”.

As Romeo, Guillaume Côté, a wonderful dancer, manages to shake all this off, his youthful ardour and lovely springy step elucidating with devastating ease Ratmansky’s delicate skeins of beaten turns and fleeting changes of direction. His Juliet, Heather Ogden, a pleasant but less nuanced dancer, by contrast appears prim rather than ardent: we never see her carried away, and can’t quite work out why she doesn’t just settle for Paris.

Like this Juliet, the ballet itself has no overarching rush of ardour, or even drama, to match Prokofiev’s score. It is instead a series of set pieces, often beautiful, but never emotionally engaging. The trios for Romeo and his friends (Piotr Stanczyk turning Mercutio into high camp, and Robert Stephen as Benvolio) are the most balletically achieved moments of the evening, their joyous camaraderie finally finding expression in the choreography rather than in mime.

Ultimately, Ratmansky’s sophisticated step-building never manages to eradicate a sense of earnestness and sincerity that infuses the production. These are both positive attributes, but they are not remotely suitable to the subject at hand.

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