The big news in English National Ballet’s new Mixed Bill, Voices of America, was a world premiere from William Forsythe, his first creation in the UK for 20 years. In the event, Playlist (Track 1, 2) was a rather small affair – about 10 minutes long – but it was fun while it lasted.
Forsythe’s days of shaking ballet by its throat until all the gold teeth have fallen out have long gone, but Playlist (Track 1, 2) has a carefree virtuosity that sits easily on the eye. Wearing red t-shirts with their names printed on the back, 12 men dance for the apparent joy of it, both in sync and in exuberant solos. This is nightclub ballet, the smooth dance remixes that make up the soundtrack give the feel of an Alvin Ailey piece, the bounce and skip of the dancers never waver. The ENB men looked great in it, happy as larks, and ten minutes turned out to be exactly the right length.
Approximate Sonata 2016 was also on display, something which Forsythe originally created in 1996 (although this was the reworked version he made for Paris Opera Ballet in, yup, you guessed it, 2016) which shows him at his most typically post-modernist. Backdrops rise and fall, a random ‘Yes’ sign is on stage, the music dribbles along without impetus, dancers huff and puff loudly, and choreographic phrases are started, halted and repeated. The thing is, it’s done with humour and considerable technical pizzazz, and therein lies its appeal. Not all the four couples on show caught the zip and drive of the extensions but Precious Adams really shone, especially in the ripple of her arms and the lime green of her trousers.
Jerome Robbins’ The Cage was another work in the hands of ENB for the first time. It was created in 1951 and visually it shows – the hair, costumes and spider’s web set look lost in a black and white sci-fi B-movie – but much of the choreography is excellent, with a couple of absorbing pas de deux holding everything together. Jurgita Dronina was terrific as the callously deceptive Novice giving the suitably bewildered James Streeter no chance.
The piece that opened the whole occasion was Aszure Barton’s Fantastic Beings, a work that first saw the light of day in ENB’s She Said programme. It felt too long then and it feels too long now. The snaky urgency of the neo-classical movement is fine in itself but, coupled with Mason Bates’ indeterminable music, solos and duets blur indistinguishably, leaving no room for personality or characterisation. It does, however, look beautiful and there were some fine performances throughout. But, as Playlist (Track 1, 2) showed, sometimes shorter is sweeter.
Voices of America runs at Sadler’s Wells until 21 April 2018. For tickets try the Sadler’s Wells website.