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Posted on February 8, 2018

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In the third instalment of his regular blogs, Graham Watts, summarises the dance he has seen in London during December 2017 and January 2018

Nuts for Christmas, Resolutions for the New Year: dance mirrored most of our lives at the turn of this past year. December’s dance in London was dominated by The Nutcracker, with a trio of the UK’s largest ballet companies performing varied dance interpretations of Tchaikovsky’s ever-popular music; post-New Year, the celebrations turned to Resolution and the 29th annual iteration of The Place’s festival of choreography by emerging artists.

The first of The Nutcracker performances was Peter Wright’s perennial favourite for The Royal Ballet, opening at the Royal Opera House on December 5. Created in 1984, the production provides the annual treat of seeing familiar faces as characters they have come to own, as well as providing rites of passage for new dancers emerging into well-worn roles with refreshing new touches. Gary Avis reprised, with his usual sparkling brio, the mysterious Herr Drosselmeyer, dedicating his performance to the memory of former Royal Ballet principal, Annette Page, who died the previous day. A particular highlight of Wright’s production is his treatment of the romantic pas de deux for Clara and Hans-Peter, here danced by Francesca Hayward (adorable as the young, demure, yet inquisitive heroine) and Alexander Campbell, whose precise and debonair dancing is an exemplar for the role of Drosselmeyer’s nephew.

The final scene of Act I – with its falling snow, fir trees, a corps de ballet of dancing snowflakes and a golden carriage – was magical, and there was much wonderful dancing to admire in the Kingdom of the Sweets, not least in the mesmerising exoticism of the Arabian dance where the sinuous Melissa Hamilton was securely passed around by Reece Clarke, David Donnelly and Téo Dubreil. Yasmine Naghdi was a delightful Rose Fairy, preceding an exquisite and electrifying Grand Pas de Deux from Sarah Lamb and Steven McRae as the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Prince.

Then came English National Ballet’s (ENB) interpretation by former artistic director, Wayne Eagling, and running for a lengthy season of 40 shows. Opening at the London Coliseum on December 13, it was the 68th consecutive year ENB had performed The Nutcracker at Christmas. The evocative Edwardian imagery of Peter Farmer’s sets and costumes provide the production with the feeling of Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days (enhanced by the presence of a hot air balloon) crossed with JM Barrie’s Peter Pan.

Guilherme Menezes danced impressively in the title role, wearing a cumbersome, full-face mask. Joseph Caley gave an assured and charismatic performance as the Nephew, worthy of his post-show promotion to lead principal by current artistic director, Tamara Rojo. It is the grown-up Clara who dances the Grand Pas de Deux, a duet more usually associated with the Sugar Plum Fairy, and here it was exquisitely performed by Shiori Kase. Eagling’s choreography for the adagio is fearsome, incorporating a relentless procession of lifts, pirouettes and shoulder-high jumps, and yet it was danced by Kase with an apparently effortless confidence and musicality that mixed vivacity and strength. The adagio is followed by a solo for the nephew, bringing the ballerina immediately back on stage for a three-minute variation that morphs from demanding step combinations into energy-sapping fouettés. That Kase was so superb throughout is also testament to Caley’s strength as a partner; he presented his ballerina to such effect she was able to concentrate on delivering a performance of subtle refinement aligned to steely technique.

Finally, from December 28 to 31, Birmingham Royal Ballet brought another Nutcracker by Peter Wright to the Royal Albert Hall, this time a revised, scaled up production staged by company director David Bintley, with magical projections (by 59 Productions) to engage the cavernous space. The company – led by the delightful Momoko Hirata as the Sugar Plum Fairy alongside an elegant princely performance by César Morales – was impressive in the ensemble scenes.

Birmingham Royal Ballet’s The Nutcracker at the Royal Albert Hall. Photograph by Annabel Moeller.

Sadler’s Wells provided a Nutcracker-free zone, concentrating instead on a revival of Matthew Bourne’s Cinderella, which officially opened to a celebrity-strewn audience on December 17. Bourne’s Cinderella is like no other, taking place in London during the Blitz and featuring the real-life event of the destruction of Soho’s Café de Paris, which took a direct hit from two bombs on March 8, 1941. There is no magical transformation; no pumpkin that turns into a coach; no furry animals that become coachmen; no Fairy Godmother or Prince, although both characters exist in other guises.

I saw two casts, both of which impressed. Ashley Shaw followed her success in The Red Shoes with another consummate performance in the title role, and she was well contrasted by Cordelia Braithwaite’s excellent interpretation in a later cast. Bourne’s hero is a shell-shocked airman (a reference to David Niven’s character in A Matter of Life and Death), portrayed by Andrew Monaghan and Will Bozier in the two shows I saw. The Angel (a Bourne substitute for the Fairy Godmother) in both casts was the impressive Liam Mower; another player to catch my eye was Danny Reubens as Sergeant Stan. The scene-stealing performance across both casts, however, came from Michela Meazza in her delicious reprisal of her glorious, sexy, comedic impersonation of the original “Mommie Dearest”, Joan Crawford. In the alternate cast, Anjali Mehra came close to Meazza’s divine bitchiness.

Cordelia Braithwaite and Liam Mower in Matthew Bourne’s Cinderella. Photograph by Johann Persson.

Earlier in the month, Project Polunin undertook a second London outing, bringing a new programme to the London Coliseum for a brief season that opened on December 6. Satori was a welcome step forward, with an elite cohort of well-prepared dancers and an exceptional creative team bringing strong production values to refreshingly “new” content. The programme concluded with 40 minutes of Polunin’s own choreography for the title work, bringing expressionism enveloped within a romantic setting. Satori was without linear narrative, but clearly with meaningful intent. Polunin is, apparently, a “seeker”, spending much of the work either in meditation or raging against unseen forces.   Natalia Osipova brought a contemplative quality of reassurance to her interactions with him. She seemed to be the memory of a past love, an idea reinforced by the appearance of a mother and child. This child may be the seeker’s former self, and the parent (Ljiljana Velimirov) a memory of his own mother.

The programme opened with the enigmatic seven-minute First Solo, in which Andrey Kaydanovskiy’s choreography configured contrasting bouts of wistful reflection and sharp attack. Polunin’s barely-covered torso evidenced the ripped physique of a man who has certainly been training hard. The dancer deserves credit for reviving important historical ballets. Here, celebrating the 125th anniversary of Kasyan Goleizovsky’s birth, he presented one of the choreographer’s few surviving works, Scriabiniana, a capsule gala presented in a succession of individual dances – from solos to quartets – that seemed modern despite being made 60 years ago.

The choreography flows through Scriabin’s luscious music with masterful intuition. A small quartet swirl like leaves blown in a gentle breeze; Osipova brings exotic plasticity to a solo that ends in the silhouetted pose of an art deco divinity; Elisa Badenes and Jason Reilly danced duets of calm and mature assurance; and – like a young Denis Matvienko – Alexei Lyubimov evoked a warrior-like essence of Spartacus with virile attack in a duet with Evgenia Savarskaya. I greatly enjoyed Goleizovsky’s innovative, lyrical choreography; it was an example of how to fill an empty stage with pure dance.

Elisa Badenes and Jason Reilly in Scriabiniana. Photograph by Tristram Kenton.

And so, into the New Year, and five visits to The Place for 15 random examples of Resolution (one of which, not to comment upon, my own daughter’s choreography for Lather. Rinse. Repeat performed by Watts Dance to music played live by Robin Porter). All of the work I saw had merit, and it is inspiring to see so many emerging choreographers – mainly women – finding their own distinctive, creative voice.

The best of a very good bunch came on the Festival’s opening night, with Lucy Palmer’s The Left Hand Path reaching a high plane of professionalism in a work that stretched out to the maximum time of 25 minutes but used every second well. It was strongly performed by four men within a structure that enabled each to own the spotlight. Kennedy Junior Muntanga excelled in a solo that isolated and exploded muscles most of us don’t appear to have. A travelling doorway augmented Palmer’s spatial eclecticism with “film-noir” lighting and strong music adding lustre to a highly polished piece.

In later programmes, I was impressed by Emma Stanworth’s Quinque, a duet interpreting the crowded swirls and splashes of Jackson Pollock’s No 5 – once the most expensive painting in the world. Tali F Bowers and Leo Meredith developed spiralling, dipping and popping movement that was encouraged by the mechanical sounds of Hugo Piper’s Mustard and Ketchup. Their bodies initially undulated and dived from a standing position and then became increasingly mobile. They ran around each other but kept apart as if by the opposing polarity of magnets. Dressed in utilitarian overalls – perhaps, like painters themselves – it was a work that made absolute sense when considered alongside the image of Pollock’s painting. Even without that key, it was a fascinating form of abstract expressionism.

This good start in pure dance led to an inventive stab at tanztheater in Natalie Sloth Richter’s SPEKTAKEL, made on a group of six women. From the early experience of Svenja Buhl’s hand appearing out of a suitcase, Richter’s imagery was ever-absorbing, with highlights including a long, sensual floor-based duet (romantically surrounded by candles) for Johanna Merceron and Irene Ingebretsen; a comic battle for occupancy of a tiny square of carpet; and a game of human ten-pin bowling led by the ever-watchable Gaia Cicolani. Richter had the courage to set several sequences running simultaneously, which caused a surfeit of ideas competing for attention, but, overall, it was a strong piece.

Then there was the visceral intensity of Duwayne Taylor’s self-made solo It’s Time to Speak, a tribute to Black Power and the Civil Rights Movement that mixed powerful krumping, mime, impersonation and spoken text to create a strong and moving statement through physical theatre. It is work like this that helps keep Resolution fresh and vibrant, and serves as a reminder about the socio-political importance of dance.

English National Ballet maintained its Nutcracker marathon into an extra few miles with an impressive pair of double bills, pairing the newly-acquired production of August Bournonville’s La Sylphide with either Kenneth MacMillan’s Song of the Earth or Roland Petit’s Le Jeune homme et la Mort. In Song, Tamara Rojo danced the role of the Woman with extraordinary technical command, well connected to Joseph Caley as the Man and excellently supported by Fernando Carratalá Coloma, elevated from the corps to the leading role of the Messenger of Death. In a later cast, Fernanda Oliveira delivered an exceptionally strong performance as the Woman.

Although I had reservations about his choice of costume (modern-day jeans replacing old-fashioned overalls), what we lost in design was more than compensated by Ivan Vasiliev’s quality of performance in Le Jeune homme et la Mort. His troubled young man was like a caged wild cat, alternating between lacklustre listlessness and frenzied athleticism. Rojo reprised her highly-charged and hugely effective cocktail of sexual predator, silent-movie femme fatale and grim reaper with all the expressiveness that this consummate dance-actress can muster. It was a stunning, sensual performance by any measure. In a later cast, Isaac Hernández and Begoña Cao gave very different but nonetheless immensely satisfying performances. Gavin Sutherland conducted the English National Ballet Philharmonic in an emphatic performance of Bach’s Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor, using the lighter Respighi orchestration (rather than the more familiar Stokowski version), albeit with some off moments from the brass section. Overall, the ENB orchestra were excellent throughout this long, long season.

I saw no fewer than five performances of La Sylphide during the month, and there was no doubt the company – with some minor reservations, such as the jiving bagpipers – gained in strength, especially in its delivery of Bournonville style. As James, Ciro Tamayo, Hernández and Aaron Robinson all gave differing interpretations, each one pleasing enough but none ticking every box; it was left to Aitor Arrieta to deliver the top notch performance, giving a fine display of dancing and a haughty, dour Highland personality that presages James’ downfall. Although four men played James, they danced opposite just two Sylphs – Jurgita Dronina and Alison McWhinney – both of whom were delightful. McWhinney had a touch more vulnerability while Dronina gave a powerful performance suffused in an ethereal believability. Francesca Velicu and Crystal Costa gave touching performances as Effie, the deceived fiancée who quickly finds another husband.

Jurgita Dronina and Isaac Hernández in English National Ballet’s La Sylphide. Photograph by Laurent Liotardo.

Cirque du Soleil made its annual New Year visit to the Royal Albert Hall, bringing Ovo, a show made in 2009 that takes inspiration from the world of insects and opens to the sight of an enormous egg. It is the traditional Cirque du Soleil fare of stunning design and extraordinary circus skills brought low by dreadful, childish attempts at humour. But, hey, if it makes millions all around the world, why fix it!

Another January staple is the London Mime Festival, which this year brought the welcome return of the Belgian-based company, Peeping Tom, in the second part of its Family trilogy, Mother (following Father and preceding the as-yet unmade Child). Set in an art gallery that doubles as family home, funeral parlour, recording studio and operating theatre, Mother has inventive dark humour with a touch of performance art horror. A visitor’s hand gets eaten by a head appearing through a painting; another artwork bleeds profusely; and a Jeff Koons-style sculpture comes to life with hilarious consequences. This outstanding piece of physical theatre was performed by eight excellent professional artists who were supported by a company of amateurs.

The month ended with a gala that gives galas a bad name. Sunday at the Savoy clearly had a chequered background, with Dmitri Gruzdyev, the former ENB Principal, widely promoted in the pre-publicity as the gala’s artistic director. There was no sight of Gruzdyev, nor credit for him at the event itself. It certainly needed some artistic direction, as the meagre collection of ten short pieces struggled on a stage far too small for classical ballet of any kind, let alone the explosive pieces generally associated with gala fare.

The saving grace was the presence of some dancers rarely seen in the UK, notably Adiarys Almeida and Taras Domitro, billed as “Cuban Ballet Royalty” in the ubiquitous Don Quixote pas de deux, and the Bolshoi’s Igor Tsvirko with Evgenia Savarskaya. Despite these tasty morsels, the value-for-money quotient of a gala ending at 8.30pm (including lengthy interval) was highly questionable. There was a smattering of celebrities and a VIP interval reception for those that had paid a premium on already-expensive tickets, suggesting it was an event that placed more emphasis on champagne than good ballet. At least most people were home by 9pm.

The Royal Ballet’s January began with the First Drafts programme of new work by company members. On the main stage on January 19, Marianela Nuñez delivered a truly magnificent performance as Giselle, prefacing the performance on February 1 that would mark her 20th year as a dancer with The Royal Ballet. Forget raw materials and wine, the extraordinary Nuñez is easily the best export from Argentina to the UK, and she continues to grace the Royal Opera House stage with sublime performances. Tierney Heap was an imperious Myrtha and the corps de ballet of Wilis were impeccably drilled. Federico Bonelli stepped in at the last moment to replace Vadim Muntagirov – one of many Londoners to succumb to influenza this January – and gave a strong, secure performance as Albrecht, a role he first danced with The Royal Ballet in 2004. Bennet Gartside brought a wealth of experience to bear on the role of the hapless village hunk, Hilarion (a role he has been dancing since 2002). Nuñez is a relative newcomer to Giselle, having made her role debut in 2009. Let’s hope we can celebrate more such anniversaries, here in London, for many years to come.

Marianela Nuñez acknowledging the applause of the audience at the Royal Opera House following her performance in the title role of Giselle on February 1 marking her 20th anniversary as a dancer with The Royal Ballet. Photograph by John Phillips/Getty Images for The Royal Ballet.


Graham Watts writes for magazines, websites, theatres and festivals across Europe, and in Japan, Australia and the USA. He is chairman of the Dance Section of the Critics’ Circle and of the National Dance Awards; a mentor of aspiring dance writers through the Resolution Review programme; and has lectured at The Place and the Royal Academy of Dance. His book, ‘Agony & Ecstasy’, written with Daria Klimentová, was published in 2013. Graham is a Commonwealth fencing medallist; was captain of the GB sabre team at the Barcelona Olympics; and fencing team leader at the Olympic Games of Athens and Beijing. He was appointed OBE, in 2008.

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