English National Ballet at Sadler’s Wells review ***


English National Ballet

Sadler’s Wells, 26th March 2017

So there I am sitting at a performance of Steve Reich classics a few months ago. In front of me is some twenty something with an open tablet nodding his head up and down like he’s listening to Metallica. Utter p*ick. Anyway once I and another granddad had given him what for he, ungraciously, desisted, but I was still in a gruff mood.

So for the second half I move and find myself next to a lovely lady who looks exactly like I imagine a retired ballet dancer would look. We start chatting and, lo and behold, she is a retired ballet dancer and, I gather, was a principal no less who still teaches. Anyway I tell her in the course of our interval chat that ballet is not really my cup of tea. But she tells me that I must go and see this performance (given I like minimalism, Beethoven and Stravinsky which essentially provide the soundtrack to this gig).

Well all I can say is that I am very grateful to this delightful woman. Thank you. Turns out LL who also knows a thing or two about ballet would recommend this too.

Now first things first. If you have a pathological hatred of the cultured, London, metropolitan elite then I strongly advise you steer clear of the ballet at Sadler’s Wells. Blimey, these people clearly know what they are about. I stood out like a sore thumb with my utter lack of fashion sense and graceless movement.

So I gather the first piece, William Forsythe’s In the Middle Somewhat Elevated, is a modern classic. I loved the thumping 4/4 electro soundtrack (anyone remember Cabaret Voltaire) and could see how some of the movement must have been revolutionary when first seen. But I did drift out a bit, in a way that has happened before with dance.

The second piece, with 3 couples, Hans van Manen’s Hammerklavier Adagio, was disappointing I am afraid. The slow movement from Beethoven’s Sonata No 29 can drag on for an eternity in the wrong hands and so it did here. It needs real skill to preserve the line of the music and this felt just too slow, I am guessing in order to match the choreography. Maybe it wasn’t, but listening to my faves, Pollini, Gould and Brendel. playing the same movement, is satisfying in a way this wasn’t. So I couldn’t really grasp the piece because of this. Sorry.

However, the final piece, a Rite of Spring choreographed by Pina Bausch, was a revelation. Obviously this is one of the greatest pieces of music ever written and the band rose to the occasion (though not approaching the heights of the Philharmonia’s take under Salonen last year which was off the scale brilliant). But the dancing. Blimey. Now I see what all the fuss was about. I was up in the gods (having actually moved backwards from a ludicrously uncomfortable seat with no legroom whatsoever, presumably everyone who goes here is a skinny rake), and so could see the whole spectacle.

Now it may be that this is what the Rite of Spring always does to you when seen as a ballet (I have only ever heard concert performances or recordings). But I suspect based on what I have read about the awe in which Pina Bausch’s version is held that this was a bit special. Anyway I was gripped. I just had no idea that ballet could be like this. Pulsating, menacing, primordial, savage and really sexy. I am not sure who was the dancer who played the sacrificial victim (what a chump I am) but she was brilliant.

So if all ballet was like this piece count me in. If all ballet was like the other two pieces then I cannot be converted.

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