English National Ballet has some explaining to do. The triple bill proposed for last week’s brief London season was identified as Ecstasy and Death, a catchpenny title since the only ecstasy on offer was the sweated marvel of ballet class in Harald Lander’s Études, albeit the two other pieces were Jirí Kylián’s Petite mort (which is a dainty post-coital reference) and Roland Petit’s Le jeune homme et la mort, which is, indeed, about death. More dubious still was the programme-cover featuring two apparent derelicts who, we might infer, had just been rescued from a burning hotel and needed help – not least with clothes and soft-focus snapshots. Most dubious was the assertion that these stagings are “three 20th-century masterpieces”, needing only the corollary, “and you are the Grand Duchess Anastasia”.
Kylián’s opus is an insult piled on adagios torn from two Mozart piano concerti – receiving the sort of performance you might expect under these circumstances – with six couples posturing in dreary undergarments, rapiers (yes, rapiers) at the ready, caught up in gymnastic activities of numbing tedium. Études was a delight in the Danish ballet repertory years ago, and paid some slight homage to Bournonville’s Konservatoriet with its memories of ballet class in Paris in the 1830s. It has long been a favourite with ENB, and received here a decent performance, Vadim Muntagirov notably brilliant.
But the only masterpiece of the evening was Le jeune homme et la mort, with Nicolas Le Riche, superlative guest from the Paris Opéra, as the Young Man, and Tamara Rojo as the Woman who is Death. I have watched this tremendous work – a true masterpiece, telling us exactly of its time, which is one of the functions of masterpieces – since its creation in 1946 with the prodigious Jean Babilée as the epitome of existential youth in postwar Paris. Le Riche is, yet again, shown as a dancer of greatness, giving an interpretation a-fire with physical and emotional power, defining the role for our time. From Tamara Rojo a bold, sexually charged portrait of the Girl. Both artists honour this ever-fascinating work of art.