Manchester Theatre Awards

> Independent informed reviews by the region’s most experienced critics

Song of the Earth & La Sylphide

MacMillan & Bournonville (Mahler & Lovenskiold)
English National Ballet
The Palace, Manchester
18 October 2017 to 14 October 2017

ENB have brought enterprising and imaginative programmes to Manchester in recent years – notably Le Corsaire in 2014 – and this year present a new double bill, seen in Manchester on its first outing.

It offers a contrast in styles, indeed in the very concept of what ballet is for. Marking 25 years since his death (backstage at the Royal Opera House), Kenneth MacMillan is commemorated with his Song of the Earth – Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, performed with tenor and mezzo soloists and a big orchestra (as he wrote it), and danced by a large company who, in various combinations, act as chorus to three solo dancers. It’s been re-staged by Grant Coyle.

There’s no set, and the dance is inspired more by the sound of the music than the details of the words – themselves derived from German language editions of Chinese poetry. So even when the music is about ‘The Drunkard in Spring’ there’s no comic staggering – the only really graphic word reflection I noticed is to ‘Die Welt schläft ein’, as the background dancers all lie down and stay still: and that’s almost more of a joke than an interpretation.

The three named roles are The Man (Joseph Caley), The Woman (Tamara Rojo) and The Messenger of Death (Jeffrey Cirio) – though in his case we have to remember that MacMillan’s original German title for him was ‘The Eternal One’ – a reference to ‘ewig’, the final word of the last poem, Der Abschied. The theme, in so far as there is one, is love, transience, and, above all, parting.

It’s abstract dance, borrowing some of its language from the contemporary styles of the 1960s, when it was created, though the steps themselves are fundamentally balletic and vividly memorable. MacMillan asks for very few conventional lifts: his soloists cling rather than embrace, and much of the movement is sculptural – danced with faces almost expressionless (which is curious in a way, as Mahler’s music is often summed up by the word ‘expressionist’).

But it was exceptionally well done. The on-stage singers, Samuel Sakker and Rhonda Browne, had little trouble being heard over Mahler’s shrieking wind scoring as the band were safely in the pit, and Gavin Sutherland piloted it with a steady hand. The soloists are among the pick of the ENB bunch (Rojo, their artistic director, still on top form), and it was a worthy homage to a great choreographer.

La Sylphide is from the other end of the spectrum – one of the first spooky Romantic ballets, set in Scotland but created by August Bournonville to entertain the continental bourgeoisie. This production is borrowed from the Royal Danish Theatre and preserves a venerable and entertaining tradition. Plenty of mime – almost like sign language at times – to tell the story, and some great full-company set pieces, with amusing versions of what may have seemed like real Scottish dancing at the time (1836 – Giselle didn’t waft along till 1841).

It’s a tale of a young bridegroom-to-be called James who finds himself literally away with the fairies when he gets on the wrong side of a nasty old soothsayer called Madge (who’s been on the whisky herself). Isaac Hernández was splendid as James – particularly in his big Act Two solos – Jurgita Dronina was a dainty seductress as the Sylph, and Jane Haworth stole the show as the evil Madge (though I still like to remember her as the Lilac Fairy).

It was a tad under-rehearsed but still great entertainment, and the children from West London School of Dance and the Young Dancers Academy were skilfully used.

Reviewer: Robert Beale


Comment by Alan Hulme

Yes, an accurate and detailed description from Robert of what I rate one of the very best evenings of dance I've been fortunate enough to see.

The Mahler/MacMillan is riveting throughout and La Sylphide a hugely enjoyable romp played on two enormous gobsmacking settings by a huge company on top form. Absolutely terrific.

Comment by David Cunningham

Found Songs of the Earth to be a performance I appreciated for the scarcity value and technical expertise rather than enjoyed. La Sylphide on the other hand was pure joy. Superb storytelling and characterisation. Gurn was certainly the better suitor being charming and graciously willing to dance with the younger party-goers than his ‘head in the clouds’ rival and Jurgita Dronina’s Sylph had a degree of innocence one does not normally associate with supernatural creatures.