The ballet world often relies on its star system to sell tickets, but for every celebrated principal, there are 10 dancers who spend their careers in the corps de ballet. Night after night, they’re the peasants, the swans who toe the line. For a ballet company, a great corps is a golden asset; for companies without a strong school such as the Mariinsky’s or the Paris Opera’s, it’s also the ultimate challenge to nurture. As Dutch National Ballet celebrates its ensemble to open the season, however, Corps is proof that it can be done.
Michel Fokine’s Les Sylphides, one of his early works for the Ballets Russes, gives us the female corps as Romantic sisterhood in a stylised variation on the second act of La Sylphide. With no plot to carry it along, the fabric of this 30-minute piece is delicate to the point of evanescence, but the performance showed what solid coaching and collective spirit can achieve. Careful épaulement and moments of suspended stillness were the norm, and Russian principal Anna Tsygankova led by example, rapturous in the Mazurka, mysteriously beautiful in the pas de deux.
Dutch choreographer Hans Van Manen is more familiar territory for the company, and his 1985 Corps, not seen in Amsterdam for more than two decades, is fascinating, a laconic study in sexual politics set to a violin concerto by Alban Berg. Here we have a brotherhood of 12 men. Three women in white, grey and black make fleeting appearances, each drawing one man away from the group. As the pas de deux unfold, the other men stay near, and echoes of the soloists’ movements seem to ripple through their compact formation.
Hints of passive aggression compete with mature lyricism throughout. When the soloist in grey stops in front of her partner, men brush past her with an air of warning; later, they turn their backs on the last woman, one by one. Van Manen isn’t one to provide clear-cut answers, however – are the women images of separate relationships, of different stages in life? As the woman in black fades away, the men slowly rally around her partner, gazing upwards in a stark image of loss.
The programme also dipped a toe in the local contemporary dance scene with a piece by Emio Greco and Pieter C. Scholten, the duo behind ICKAmsterdam. The body of the national ballet is a new version of a piece created two years ago for Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo, Le Corps du Ballet, and Greco and Scholten claim to investigate the ballet body to bring a “velvet revolution” to the way the dancers work.
To the muffled rhythm of a heartbeat, a 30-strong cast in nude-coloured body suits deconstructs phrases from the classical repertoire with contemporary energy: a Spanish flourish morphs into a slashing gesture, a woman recreates a dazed solo to the Grand Pas music from The Nutcracker. Dancers break from the group with a scream, pull their suits over their heads to form a faceless ensemble. The focus is loose throughout and the commentary rather vague, but it requires immense versatility of dancers previously engaged in Fokine and Van Manen, and the corps was rewarded with an enormous collective bouquet. An all-too-rare tribute.