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The Brexit Effect by Barbara Newman

Posted on February 8, 2018

Giselle. Vadim Muntagirov as Albrecht Marianela Nuñez as Giselle. ©ROH 2016. Photograph by Tristram Kenton 4

Are you worried about Brexit? You should be. Its impact on the arts in the UK could be greater than you might anticipate. In the February issue of Dancing Times, an excellent letter to the editor from Fiona Biddulph in Rutland raises important questions about the opportunities for British dancers that may be limited by new restrictions on travel and employment. I’ve been wondering about a different problem the new legislation could impose on dance.

In the last few weeks, I caught three London performances, two of them press nights, by The Royal Ballet at Covent Garden and English National Ballet (ENB) at the London Coliseum. In them, eight remarkable artists powered four enduring masterpieces that originally appeared in three different countries: August Bournonville’s La Sylphide after Filippo Taglioni, first staged in Copenhagen in 1836; Giselle, created in Paris in 1841; Roland Petit’s Le Jeune homme et la Mort, made for the Ballets des Champs Elysées in Paris in 1946; and Kenneth MacMillan’s Song of the Earth, given its premiere by Stuttgart Ballet in 1965.

Alone these works represent crucial developments in dance history over more than a century. The artists I saw leading them forced me to focus on history in the making, today. Naturally, everyone who works with these companies has been trained to a professional standard. Professionals differ, however, not only in their technical abilities but in their imaginative choices and expressive range. No one needs experts, critics or academics to point out these differences. From the spontaneous response in the theatre, it’s obvious that viewers can discern the distinctions for themselves.

In ENB’s season – La Sylphide introduced either by Song of the Earth or Le Jeune homme et la Mort – memorable interpretations in the leading roles came from Tamara Rojo; Ciro Tamayo, who was trained, as Rojo was, in Spain and is now a principal with the National Ballet of Uruguay; Ivan Vasiliev, a Russian; Fernando Carratalá Coloma, a corps de ballet member, born in Spain; Aitor Arrieta, a soloist born in the Basque country and trained in Madrid; and Stina Quagebeur, a first artist born in Belgium. For the first of 15 performances of Giselle, The Royal Ballet chose Marianela Nuñez, born and trained in Argentina, and the Russian Vadim Muntagirov, who was replaced because of injury by Federico Bonelli, an Italian.

Why are those artists so compelling? Clearly they offer the public more than the glamour of their exotic names. Is it their attitude towards their art? Physical authority? Personal temperament? Emotional conviction? Looking ahead to Brexit, Fiona Biddulph asks, “How will [British] dancers who have given up their lives to train from childhood be able to find work?” Looking back over those three evenings I’m almost cornered into asking why we’re not seeing more dancers from the UK in these roles right now. If all the names I’ve listed – European and non-European – vanished from the companies’ rosters, would enough artists remain who can draw the public night after night and satisfy both the technical and dramatic demands of these roles? And if not, why not?

Pictured: Marianela Nuñez and Vadim Muntagirov in The Royal Ballet’s production of Giselle. Photograph by Tristram Kenton, courtesy of the Royal Opera House.


Barbara Newman’s books about ballet include Grace under Pressure; The Illustrated Book of Ballet Stories for children; a volume of interviews, Striking a Balance, and its follow-up, Never Far from Dancing. She has written for Dancing Times since 1984 and served as the dance critic for Country Life from 1990 to 2016. She archives all her work at

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