On Thursday evening, English National Ballet launched its first full season under new artistic director Aaron S Watkin with what promised to be something of a bang. Three very different works – one new to the company, two new full-stop – set to very different composers, this in fact marking the first time I have ever seen Stravinsky followed on a dance bill by (arguably his musical antithesis) Richard Strauss: tantalising stuff.
In the event, not all the courses in this banquet (titled “Our Voices”) slipped down quite as hoped, but the premiere at its centre is an intense, elliptical, blazingly theatrical success. A century on from Bronislava Nijinska’s trailblazing first interpretation of the score, Andrea Miller’s Les Noces, Ascent to Days – director Tamara Rojo’s final, typically canny commission before stepping down last year – keeps most of the traditional nuptial thread, but weaves another conceit around it. Her idea is that The Rite of Spring has just happened – but what now? And was the brutal sacrifice in vain?
The staging (designs by Phyllida Barlow, who died only this year) is at once grandly elemental and claustrophobic, with the action unfolding between and (often on) a Ring-style rocky hill and under a large sculpture that registers as a seething knot of insoluble problems. Meanwhile, stage-right, the vocal soloists and extended chorus form a right-angled wall around the dancers – implacable history, tradition and expectation hemming them in.
With the bride now rebranded as the Chosen One, and a second Chosen One added to the mix – a kind of ghostly echo, I think, of Rite – you have to concentrate hard to stay on top of things here, and even then might often falter. But no matter: by turns ferocious, beseeching and implacable, Miller’s contemporary choreography suits the music to a tee, and the cast attack it as if with teeth and claws bared.
Breanna Foad is a marvel as the “bride”, horror coming off her like steam: one passage where she bourrées between otherwise motionless characters, aghast at her parents’ predicament, lodges particularly firmly in the memory. Among the other sterling soloists, James Streeter is simply electrifying as the father, while Francesca Velicu, previously an astonishing Chosen One in Rite, potently resumes the corresponding role here.
A necessarily quick word about the two pieces flanking Les Noces. In Thursday’s performance, the soloists in Balanchine’s 1947 neo-classical showpiece Theme and Variations (set to Tchaikovsky) didn’t, disappointingly, seem entirely to be speaking in their mother tongue, and the achievement came across as an upside-down pyramid: the corps were the star.
As for the closer, this sees neo-classicist David Dawson set Strauss’s Four Last Songs to movement, an incredibly ambitious idea that could arguably never quite come off. True, there is considerable craftsmanship, plenty of elegant moments, in his steps. But the score – supremely Im Abendrot (“At Dusk”) – exists on such an elevated and essentially un-rhythmic musical and spiritual plane that I wonder if even the late Kenneth MacMillan, working at white heat, could have fully done it justice.
I repeatedly found myself drawn away from the action – and the oddly clinical designs – and towards the mercurial rapture on the face of resplendent on-stage soprano Madeleine Pierard. And indeed it was she who earned the evening’s single most impassioned round of applause.
Until Sept 30. Tickets: 020 7863 8000; sadlerswells.com