Petit Triple Bill: L’Arlésienne, Le jeune homme et la mort, Carmen, English National Ballet, ENB at the London Coliseum, July 2011

Roland Petit died less than two weeks ago, and the remarkable timing of this triple bill made it a wonderful tribute to his choreography. That I happened to go on July 22, rather than the first night was entirely fortuitous, and we were rewarded by an incredible performance of Le jeune homme brilliantly danced by guest artist Ivan Vasiliev, shown in the photo below and making his debut with the company.

Ivan Vasiliev in Jeune Homme, photo by Laurent Liotardo

I’ll come back to this wholly unexpected treat later, but things started more gently with L’Arlésienne, based on a short story and play by Alphonse Daudet. It expresses the anguish and eventual suicide of a young man who cannot forget a woman in Arles. Despite having a lovely fiancée and a group of peasant friends who try to support him, he descends into madness and ends up throwing himself out of a window. The choreography is intriguing, and reminiscent of that wonderful Ballets Russes work Les Noces, showing a wedding ceremony in a tightly knit peasant society. The music for L’Arlésienne was written by Bizet for the original play, and will be familiar from two orchestral suites that are often played. The ensemble dancing was excellent, and Erina Takehashi gave a lovely portrayal of the girl, so full of life. By contrast the young man is heading for death, and although Esteban Berlanga danced it with huge energy, warming to the agony as the ballet progressed, his emotion seemed unconvincing.

Esteban Berlanga in L'Arlésienne, photo by Simon Tomkinson

Carmen, the last item on the programme, is great fun, but to those who know Bizet’s opera the music is not always used for the same scenes in the ballet, and the characterisation is confusing. Don Jose with his cape looks more like a toreador than a simple soldier, and the Toreador himself, who comes in towards the end, is rather too camp. But Adela Ramirez as the Bandit girl was sexy, sassy and adorable, very well supported by Juan Rodriguez and Joshua McSherry-Gray as the bandits. Fabian Reimair was a stylish Don Jose, proudly assertive at the start yet showing a slow descent to desperation, and Begoña Cao was a fiercely cold Carmen. More warmth and emotion from the two main characters would have been welcome, but that had already come in bucketfuls from Ivan Vasiliev in the second item of the programme.

Begoña Cao and Fabian Reimair in Carmen, photo by Patrick Baldwin

Vasiliev was quite extraordinary, and apparently wanted to dance  Jeune Homme as a tribute to Roland Petit’s widow Zizi Jeanmaire. He gave it everything: enormous feeling, terrifying acrobatics, and hugely suppressed desire and emotion. His nemesis was Jia Zhang as the girl — the femme fatale who takes him to his death. She was superbly controlled and manipulative, and immensely desirable in her yellow dress. As he grasped her wrist he gave her a look of quiet desperation, and the two of them together created a glorious effect. In the final minute and a half the room vanishes and we see rooftops. It’s a fabulous set, costing an arm and a leg, but worth every penny, and this was a truly memorable occasion. Wonderful conducting by Benjamin Pope, particularly of the Bach music for Jeune Homme.

We don’t see enough of Roland Petit’s work in this country so go to this if you have the chance. Performances continue until July 24 — for details click here.

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