Dancing down the rabbit hole … English National Ballet’s Alice in Wonderland
English National Ballet is a big white swan of a company. Sometimes it flies, sometimes it flaps, and even though it’s gone under many times, it never sinks.
The company was founded in 1950 as Festival Ballet. Alicia Markova and Anton Dolin, former stars of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, had been playing to huge audiences in vast London stadiums. Polish impresario Julian Braunsweg persuaded them to form a company for a regional tour. Buoyed by its success, they founded Festival Ballet (named to coincide with the forthcoming Festival of Britain) with the mission of touring high-quality ballet to wide audiences. To this day, that elusive grail has been the company’s blessing and curse. General director Braunsweg described his role as “cultural juggler” – chasing audiences and publicity, brokering talent and, most precariously, managing finances (even pawning his wife’s jewellery); and every director since has had to be a juggler too.
Markova left after only two years, but Dolin remained as artistic director until 1962, succeeded by former company dancer John Gilpin. The company grew in size and status, undertaking extensive national and international tours, presenting a new generation of dancers – all while repeatedly facing bankruptcy. Braunsweg left in 1965 and Donald Albery took over until 1968, stabilising the budget with safer programming. Former Royal Ballet dancer Beryl Grey directed the company (now named London Festival Ballet) until 1979, raising technical standards, touring widely and inviting prominent guest stars and choreographers (Massine, Nureyev). Her successor John Field erred on the side of caution. Former company dancer Peter Schaufuss, who took over in 1984, was the opposite: a brash personality whose programming was adventurous (if not always successful). Under Schaufuss, the company piled up the debt again. He was dismissed in 1990 after the arrival of a formidable new chair of the board, Pamela, Lady Harlech, whose hands-on approach led some wags to call the company (which had just been renamed English National Ballet), the “Dance Theatre of Harlech”.
Schaufuss’s successor Ivan Nagy fared worse: technical and artistic standards fell and he was dismissed in 1993. Derek Deane subsequently focused on drilling the dancers and programming blockbusters and safe bets, which put the finances back on track. But many dancers left, and critics accused him of dumbing down. He quit in 2001. Swede Matz Skoog raised the company’s artistic profile again. Wayne Eagling, former head of Dutch National Ballet, has been director since 2006. Given ENB’s history, who knows what will happen next? So far, Eagling’s juggling act seems to be working.
Watching English National Ballet
The core repertoire comprises ballet standards with high audience recognition – Swan Lake, Nutcracker, Giselle, Romeo and Juliet – sometimes presented in blockbuster versions for big arenas. Then there are the “family-friendly” productions, including a regular Christmas Nutcracker, modern pieces such as The Snow Queen and, most recently, the successful Angelina Ballerina ballets, based on the popular children’s books. There are also occasional “heritage pieces” from the back catalogue, such as Harald Lander’s Études. Like many other big ballet companies, ENB is cautious about programming too many modern works in case it loses audiences.
The company’s first stars were John Gilpin and Belinda Wright. Later eminent dancers included Toni Lander, Galina Samsova (later director of Scottish Ballet), André Prokovsky, Eva Evdokimova, Trinidad Sevillano and, most recently, Thomas Edur and Agnes Oaks. High-profile patrons and board members have included Princess Diana and Angela Rippon.
Festival Ballet once performed Swan Lake with Hollywood star Gene Tierney. In the 1953 film Never Let Me Go, Tierney plays a Soviet ballerina in love with American journalist Clark Gable. She escapes in the midst of a performance in which she is partnered by Anton Dolin and backed by Festival Ballet. A boat awaits her and she swims to freedom, still in costume – surely the only swan from Swan Lake to actually swim.
In their own words
“A company like ENB always has to be looking to its purse strings – we’re not here to waste people’s money.” – Derek Deane, interview with Louise Levene in the Independent, 1997
“I think some of the greatest resistance to change comes from within the organisation itself, and within the dance world here.” – Matz Skoog, interview with Ismene Brown in the Telegraph, 2002
“I want to make English National Ballet the selling point. Not the ballets, not the choreographers, but ENB itself, the dancers and the quality of the company.” – Wayne Eagling, interview with Debra Craine in the Times, 2005
In other words
“A company aiming to dance the best popular classics at the highest standards for the widest audience.” – John Percival, Independent, 2002
“You have to hand it to English National Ballet: it thinks big. Cursed with sailing second to the Royal as a national flagship, hobbled by not having a theatre it can call home, struggling to find an identity, it has produced a string of large-scale crowd-pleasers and become ‘the one that does the Albert Hall’.” – Jenny Gilbert, Independent on Sunday, 2008
“Not very English, not the national company, but it’s definitely ballet.”
“British National Ballet.”
(You’re getting mixed up with the “BNP ballerina”, Simone Clarke.)
Now watch this
Where to see them next
See the English National Ballet website for performance dates.