Dance lovers won’t want to miss the brand new double bill English National Ballet is bringing to Milton Keynes Theatre next week, writes Georgina Butler.
When the company makes its annual autumn visit, the dancers will perform Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s masterpiece Song of the Earth alongside Frank Andersen’s faithful recreation of La Sylphide. Both works are exciting new additions to English National Ballet’s repertoire so audiences in Milton Keynes will be among the very first to see the company perform them.
MacMillan’s Song of the Earth is arguably his most significant artistic achievement as a choreographer and is indisputably one of the greatest ballets of the twentieth century.
However, when MacMillan first proposed his idea for this danced realisation of Austrian composer Gustav Mahler’s symphonic song cycle Das Lied von der Erde to the Royal Opera House Board in early 1965, he was turned away. The powers-that-be claimed the elegiac score (which Mahler composed following the death of his four-year-old daughter and his own diagnosis of incurable heart disease) was not suitable for a ballet as it was such an admired work of art itself.
Undeterred, MacMillan took the project to Stuttgart Ballet and Song of the Earth premiered that same year, receiving rapturous reviews. MacMillan was invited to stage the work for The Royal Ballet just six months later and his standing as an illustrious ballet choreographer developed from here.
Mahler’s haunting symphony is for two voices and an orchestra. Having found inspiration in a volume of ancient Chinese poems on life’s sadness and transience, Mahler set the German translations of six of these poems to music. This resulted in a soundscape of tragic beauty.
Fittingly, MacMillan’s Song of the Earth is a compelling exploration of love, loss and renewal. The ballet introduces a narrative thread to the melancholy by featuring three central characters: a Woman (in white), a Man (in grey) and an enigmatic Messenger (in black).
The story the dancers tell is a bittersweet reminder of the fragility of life. Expect to be moved by the ballet’s profound message that death awaits us all but is not to be feared.
English National Ballet’s first ever performances of Song of the Earth coincide with the 25th anniversary commemorations of MacMillan’s death.
Audiences in Milton Keynes are privileged to be experiencing English National Ballet in Song of the Earth before the company debuts it to London ballet fans as part of a celebration of MacMillan’s work at the Royal Opera House later in the month. This series of performances will see six British dance companies (Birmingham Royal Ballet, English National Ballet, Northern Ballet, The Royal Ballet, Scottish Ballet and Yorke Dance Project) come together to pay tribute to MacMillan’s legacy.
The unmissable double bill coming to Milton Keynes Theatre also sees English National Ballet making history as the first company to dance Frank Andersen’s recreation of August Bournonville’s La Sylphide in the UK.
Bournonville’s 1836 La Sylphide was an adaptation of an 1832 French ballet of the same name choreographed by Filippo Taglioni to showcase the technique of his daughter, the great ballerina Marie Taglioni.
Bournonville’s version of the ballet is the one that endured and remains in the repertoire of the Royal Danish Ballet today.
Bournonville retained Taglioni’s expressive arms and airy grace for the female dancers in his take on the ballet. He then added an extra dimension of brilliance for his male dancers with choreography which demands buoyant leaps, speedy beaten jumps and a charming modesty that masks any suggestion of effort or bravado.
Indeed, the Bournonville style affords equal importance to male and female dancers so we can look forward to being dazzled by the whole company when English National Ballet presents Andersen’s production.
In La Sylphide, Scottish farmer James is enticed away from his fiancée by an ethereal sylph. Although he is unable to touch her, James movingly echoes her movements in his. He swiftly becomes so infatuated that he willingly risks everything to pursue the otherworldly being – with devastating consequences.
Performances run October 17-21. To book tickets click here
For more dance and theatre news, reviews, features and interviews from Georgina, visit https://georginabutler.co.uk/ and follow her on Twitter @GeorginaLButler.
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