Last week, I went to see English National Ballet’s double bill of Song of the Earth and La Sylphide at The Palace. Combining Kenneth MacMillan’s iconic, poignant meditation on life and death with a classic ballet fairytale, this programme really showcases the versatility of the company.
Song of the Earth loosely follows a Man, a Woman (danced with stunning purity and elegance by Erina Takahashi) and their encounters with the Messenger of Death. These moments are sombre and meditative, but interspersed with livelier passages featuring the corps de ballet. Each ‘song’ in Mahler’s cycle is performed live onstage by a mezzo-soprano and tenor, which adds a further layer of expression.
La Sylphide, originally choreographed by August Bournonville back in 1836, shares themes of love and loss with Song of the Earth. But its aesthetic is firmly rooted in the same romanticism as the better-known Giselle – from the long, bell-shaped tutus of the sylphs, to the light and delicate original score by Løvenskiold, to a storyline built around unrequited love.
Rina Kanehara is the daintiest sylphide you could wish for, skimming across the stage with feather lightness – she puts in a great dramatic turn too, capturing the sylph’s erratic changes of mood. Joseph Caley, dancing the role of James – the young man tempted by the sylph – nails the demanding jumps and nimble footwork characteristic of Bournonville’s choreography.
The whole production is geared towards telling the story, with clever moments of foreshadowing. As a bride, Effy is draped in James’ tartan to symbolise her new allegiance – this mirrors the scarf that later covers the sylphide, and robs her of her freedom. Like Giselle, the final moments of the ballet are truly moving.
Originally created for the Royal Danish Ballet, La Sylphide is performed by few companies in the UK – this staging is in fact making its UK debut, so a big thank you to English National Ballet for bringing it to a theatre outside of London, and giving audiences a chance to see something new (and totally brilliant).