English National Ballet – The Forsythe Evening, Sadler’s Wells, stage review: ‘Bravado, bravery, and beauty’

Photograph: Geovanny Santillan

As a ballet devotee, even I admit its reputation as stuffy and conservative is proving hard to shed.

Venues like Sadlers Well’s and The Place do their utmost to regularly reinvent the landscape, and companies like Ballet Black and Rambert (to name just two) keep banging the drum.

But with The Nutcracker and Swan Lake reappearing every year with very little variation, it’s certainly an uphill battle to change the public perception of this most varied art form.

Bring in the cavalry: William Forsythe.

A legend in the dance world, Forsythe extends his 2018 piece Playlist (Track 1, 2) into Playlist (EP). This concluding performance looks like the USA after a happy-go-lucky attack with a highlighter. The almost 30 dancers dazzle in neon blues and fuchsia pinks – the boys in skin-tight American football outfits, and matching cocky frat boy swagger, the girls in a bright pink balletic reinterpretation of the cheerleader’s uniform.

This piece is dedicated to the playfulness of dance and its ability to amuse, invigorate and uplift.

Peven Everett’s ‘Surely Shortly’ has the dancers grinding with a swinging sexuality that is rarely seen on the Sadlers Well’s stage (*clutches pearls in delighted mock shock). This is orchestrated with such precision by the corps de ballet. Not a hand or leg is lifted out of formation. Like a murmuration of starlings, they move as one – a testament to the strict training of the English National Ballet.

Sadly, the female addition to the extended piece doesn’t feel as fleshed out. As the men fling themselves around to ‘Impossible’ by Lion Babe and Jax Jones, the girls feel rather stranded up in the skies on ponte, disconnected from the earthy reality of the male choreography.

‘Sha La La Means I Love You’ by Barry White brings in some salsa tones that Forsythe’s exuberant choreography leans heavily into, leaping over genre boundaries yet still managing to keep the precision ballet is so known and loved for.

Natalie Cole’s ‘This Will Be’ closes the evening in a triumphant overflowing, as the faces of the dancers betray guilty smiles as the joy of dancing overcomes the need for facial rigidity.

Blake Works I is shockingly set to the music of the experimental singer/producer James Blake and his album The Colour In Anything. Like the twilight electronic and wistful work of Blake, the dancers, in pale shades of blue, spin delicately into each other’s arms. A focus on shifting pas de deux is heart-wrenchingly sweet, with the music neither over-informing the movement nor falling into the background.

However interesting, the pieces sit rather uncomfortably next to each other.

Blake Works I feels rather earnest while Playlist (EP) is a burst of bravado, bravery, and beauty, with a tongue pressed so far into its cheek I’m pretty sure its poking out its eye.

Nevertheless, the point is clearly felt. Ballet isn’t dead, dull, or dusty.

Thanks to the English National Ballet and Forsythe for confidently blowing off the cobwebs!

English National Ballet – The Forsythe Evening was performed at Sadler’s Wells for one night in early April.

For information about upcoming shows at the venue, visit sadlerswells.com.