English National Ballet is to make a much-anticipated return to Milton Keynes Theatre with an exciting new double bill next week.
When the dancers tour to the venue for their annual autumn visit, they will perform Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s masterpiece Song of the Earth alongside Frank Andersen’s faithful recreation of La Sylphide. Both works are recent additions to English National Ballet’s repertoire so audiences in Milton Keynes will be among the very first dance lovers to see them performed by the company.
MacMillan’s Song of the Earth is arguably his most significant artistic achievement and indisputably one of the greatest ballets of the twentieth century.
However, when he first proposed his idea for a 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, MacMillan was turned away. The powers-that-be claimed the elegiac score (composed by Mahler 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. 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 there.
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 they embody is a bittersweet reminder of the fragility of life so audiences should 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 balletomanes as part of a celebration of MacMillan’s work at the Royal Opera House later in the month.
English National Ballet will also make history this season with the second part of its unmissable double bill: the company is the first to dance Frank Andersen’s La Sylphide in the UK.
Husband and wife Frank Andersen and Eva Kloborg are leading producers of August Bournonville ballets and they have devotedly recreated the Danish choreographer’s renowned 1836 work.
Bournonville’s La Sylphide was an adaptation of a French ballet of the same name choreographed by Filippo Taglioni in 1832 to showcase the technique of his daughter, the notable Romantic Era ballerina Marie Taglioni. The version by Bournonville is the one that endured and it remains in the repertoire of The Royal Danish Ballet today.
For his La Sylphide, Bournonville kept Taglioni’s expressive arms and airy grace for the female dancers. He then added an extra dimension of brilliance for the male dancers with choreography that demands buoyant leaps, speedy beaten jumps and a charming modesty that masks any suggestion of effort or bravado.
Certainly, 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.
A masterpiece and a beloved classic, both performed by English National Ballet for the very first time.
I can’t wait!
*English National Ballet promotional photography by Jason Bell.
*Production photography of Tamara Rojo in Song of the Earth courtesy of The Royal Ballet.
English National Ballet brings its Song of the Earth / La Sylphide double bill to Milton Keynes Theatre from Tuesday 17 to Saturday 21 October 2017.
I also wrote previews for:
Update 19 October 2017: Read my review of English National Ballet’s Song of the Earth / La Sylphide double bill.
Georgina Butler is an editor, a dance writer and a ballet teacher.