REVIEW: Song of the Earth / La Sylphide (Milton Keynes Theatre) ★★★★

Beautifully tragic, or tragically beautiful. Ballet epitomises the art of storytelling without words, losing its audience in a world of music and movement that captures the very essence of dance.

This season, English National Ballet bring what seem to be two very different pieces together in this double bill of Song of the Earth and La Sylphide. The tragic tale of La Sylphide looks at love, betrayal and infatuation, while Song of the Earth considers death as something inevitable yet hopeful, with a promise of renewal. However, both pieces centre upon a man, a woman and an other being.

However, in style and choreography they are worlds apart. Song of the Earth is surreal, modern and devoid of costumes and scenery. The focus is on the dance and the dancers, accompanied by singers who help us to understand the story. A story of light and dark, of nature and the circle of life.

Kenneth MacMillan‘s choreography is unusual in that it does not appear to mirror the lyrics of the songs. Yet somehow they complement each other. The corps de ballet struggles at first, but finds its feet by the third song, which is more positive and friendly. Aaron Robinson is suitably mysterious as The Messenger of Death and there are some nice moments between the three principals. However, one cannot help but feel that the audience has been lured into watching this lesser known piece by the promise of the beloved classic.

In contrast, La Sylphide is a burst of colour – the tartan costumes and picturesque scenery reflecting the happy, wedding ambience. Dancing here is more beautiful and traditional, featuring some exquisite jumps from Jeffrey Cirio (James) and a stunning performance from Erina Takahashi as La Sylphide. The Scottish dancing is a delight, particularly the ensemble piece that includes the children.

Yet the tragedy of Act II is the true magic of this piece. The emotion of all the performers is clear to see, from the torment Effy (Francesca Velicu) feels when she decides her future, to James’ upset and anguish at what he has done. The Sylphs are delicate and beautiful in their dancing, with Baron Hermann Løvenskjold‘s exquisite score capturing the myth and drama of the story.

While both ballets have moments of true magic, Song of the Earth can in no way compare to the fragile beauty of La Sylphide.

Reviewed by Michaela Clement-Hayes
Photo: Laurent Liotardo