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Posted on May 9, 2018

Graham Watts experiences the capital’s dance scene during March and April 2018

One of the better rites of spring is that these months bring out the best of dance and this year’s ritual feast was special, including a host of London, UK and world premieres.

Sadler’s Wells was busy at the beginning of March, opening with Körper, a seminal work of architectural dance by Sasha Waltz and Guests, originally made at the turn of the 21st century, and impressively performed by an ensemble featuring more than half the dancers from that opening performance 18 years ago. It was a veteran cast that truly “owned” this challenging – and often poignant – treatise on body and gender.

The mood changed significantly the following evening when Germán Cornejo brought all the way from Buenos Aries an all-new production entitled Tango After Dark for its world premiere at the Peacock Theatre. It was non-stop, slick entertainment danced to relentlessly enjoyable music composed by the king of Tango Argentino, Astor Piazzolla. It’s hard to imagine that partnered dancing could get any better than this.

Ballet British Columbia’s first London show – also at Sadler’s Wells – comprised three works created by women (Emily Molnar, Crystal Pite and Sharon Eyal), programmed without explicit announcement or fanfare. Instead of specifically showcasing female choreographers, it was simply a mixed bill of diverse pieces joined by a golden thread of quality. This is a company of classically trained dancers who don’t perform classical ballet. The sophisticated, fluid movement is mixed with such strength it wouldn’t be surprising to learn these dancers were lumberjack reservists in their spare time.

Russell Maliphant returned to the quirky, atmospheric Print Room at the Coronet in Notting Hill Gate for maliphantworks2, opening with a gentle and hypnotic film directed by Tim Etchells and Hugo Glendinning showing the choreographer and Dana Fouras playing in the angry Atlantic waves of the West Cork coast. Live dance included revivals of existing works such as Two Times Two, performed by Fouras and new-find Grace Jabbari; the male duet from Critical Mass (postponed due to injury from last year’s maliphantworks), danced by Maliphant, partnering Dickson Mbi; and Mbi and Jabbari in the arresting Still. The set of mix-and-match couples was completed when Maliphant and Fouras returned to dance Duet, the first time they had performed together in London for 15 years. This collection of duets, new and old, performed by young and mature artists, was an uplifting and memorable event.

The Royal Ballet enjoyed three spring openings, starting with a triple bill celebrating the centenary of Leonard Bernstein’s birth. Hitherto, The Royal Ballet has had a tenuous link to Bernstein’s music, but here Liam Scarlett’s Age of Anxiety was revived as the middle work of the trio, sandwiched between two world premieres: Wayne McGregor’s Yugen and Christopher Wheeldon’s Corybantic Games.

McGregor has made a fine piece to Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms, in choreography more fluid, softer and sentimental than we have generally seen from him before. Wheeldon had prior experience of choreographing to Bernstein’s music and crafted an enigmatic work that is certainly corybantic, but also controlled and emotional. Danced in five distinct sections, Jean-Marc Puissant’s versatile set creates a subtle and different ambience for each movement. Scarlett’s revival brought a welcome narrative theme to the programme, with charismatic performances throughout the small cast.

Caption: Dancers of The Royal Ballet in Wayne McGregor’s Yugen. Photograph by Andrej Uspenski, courtesy of the Royal Opera House.

This purposeful triple bill was followed by another resembling the remnants basket of a village hall bring-and-buy sale, with no discernible theme other than to revive a trio of recently performed one-act ballets. Nonetheless, Alessandra Ferri triumphed in her moving performance as Marguerite, alongside Federico Bonelli’s Armand, in Frederick Ashton’s Marguerite and Armand. Once retired from the repertoire, it is now ubiquitously performed around the globe.

Ferri’s arresting interpretation should have closed the programme, since that disappointment was a lacklustre showing of Kenneth MacMillan’s Elite Syncopations, lacking in personality and zip. It seems only Birmingham Royal Ballet can assimilate the work with appropriate panache. The programme was completed by the return of McGregor’s Obsidian Tear, the ballet that initiated his more emotional, less scientific line of choreographic inquiry that continued into Yugen.

The third of The Royal Ballet openings came with a revival of MacMillan’s Manon, still testament to the directorial and choreographic genius of its creator. There have been so many great interpreters of the title role (some, such as Marianela Nuñez and Natalia Osipova, performing superbly later in this run) and to this elite, we must now add Francesca Hayward, who stepped in to replace Laura Morera on opening night with a sublime performance that further confirmed the indefinable whisper of greatness around all that she does. Despite this, the ballet seemed lacking in power, excepting fine performances by Christopher Saunders as the foot-fetishist Monsieur GM and Gary Avis’ nonchalant air of malevolence as the Gaoler. The usual slickness and rich array of supporting performances returned in succeeding shows.

The genius of MacMillan was celebrated again later in April, in a remarkable programme that showed all, or part, of three early works. This was choreography that in some cases had been written off as lost, and not even seen, ever, by his widow, Deborah. Step forward Viviana Durante, a veteran of at least a dozen MacMillan roles, and her pop-up company comprising dancers from The Royal Ballet, Ballet Black and Scottish Ballet – and with special acknowledgement to Mayumi Hotta for her painstaking research over a period of eight months – in order to retrieve the whole of Laiderette (MacMillan’s third work, dating from 1954) in Kenneth MacMillan: Steps Back in Time. Danced in the intimate surroundings of the Barbican Pit, it was performed alongside a chunky extract from House of Birds and the pas de deux from Danses concertantes (both 1955).

Durante’s programme was a remarkable achievement on a small budget, resonating, no doubt, with the frugal realities of MacMillan’s early works for the Choreographic Club. Excellent costumes were mostly made anew by Royal Ballet wardrobe assistants, Rossella D’Agostino and Tjasha Stroud. Hayward was again all-conquering as Laiderette, the sad pierrot who finds temporary joy in the arms of a handsome party host (Thiago Soares) before her baldness is exposed and she is rejected. Soares and Lauren Cuthbertson (beguiling in a patterned white tutu) also essayed the roles made on David Poole and Maryon Lane in an extract from House of Birds. José Alves and Akane Takada danced the short section from Danses Concertantes with assured precision and elegance.

Caption: Lauren Cuthbertson and Thiago Soares in Kenneth MacMillan’s House of Birds. Photograph by Bill Cooper.

Back at Sadler’s Wells towards the end of March was a production that challenged societal reticence to confront death in a staging that featured a slow-motion film of a dying woman as the backdrop to a fascinating alternative reality of Mozart’s Requiem (in Fabrizio Cassol’s orchestration for individual voices, electric guitar, percussion, accordion and euphonium). Alain Platel’s direction of Requiem Pour L allowed little interaction between the performers on stage and the last breaths of the dying woman on screen. It takes a lifetime to learn how to accept death, but it seems, to this writer, at least, never to be palatable as a form of entertainment.

Later the same week, actual dance returned to Sadler’s Wells with an early celebration of Richard Alston’s 70th birthday, alongside marking his 50 years as a choreographer, in Mid Century Modern; the name of both the programme and its final work. This well-constructed platform brought together extracts of Alston’s choreography over five decades and still found time to showcase Cut and Run, a new piece by associate choreographer Martin Lawrance, as well as two new pieces by Alston himself: a narrative theme on Robert Schumann’s Carnaval with the two sides of the composer’s self-diagnosed split personality danced by Liam Riddick and Nicholas Bodych, plus an outstanding new solo for regular Alston guest, Vidya Patel.

These “seven ages of Alston” emphasised how his principles and innate musicality have remained unchanged throughout a prolific career, even though his range of movement continues to innovate – the secret lying in a vast range of musical inspiration. A poignant edge to this celebration came with the fact that these were Riddick’s final performances prior to leaving the company in order to pursue a freelance career.

Squeezed in between these shows was Motionhouse’s Charge at the Peacock Theatre. The final instalment of Kevin Finnan’s Earth Trilogy, it explored ecological themes and celebrated his company’s 30th Anniversary. Charge looked at the electric energy that makes our bodies work and continued in its line of the exciting dynamic of powerful, circus-based dance theatre. Fused with clever digital technology, it gives Warwick-based Motionhouse a distinctive brand that sets it apart in a crowded marketplace for acrobatic dance.

Another April highlight was English National Ballet’s much-anticipated Voices of America, which included a brief new work by William Forsythe. Playlist (Track 1,2) was a ballet class for 12 men (or, at least, centre work) who go clubbing in a joyful series of ebullient exercises that zigzag the stage. Another Forsythe work, Approximate Sonata 2016, deconstructed a sequence of five duets, as if in rehearsal, emphasised when Alina Cojocaru and Joseph Caley took a break, mid-duet, to discuss how a challenging movement might be improved. Here was Forsythe at his most playful.

Caption: English National Ballet in William Forsythe’s Playlist (Track 1,2). Photograph by Laurent Liotardo.

The programme opened with a re-run of Aszure Barton’s Fantastic Beings, a challenging ensemble ballet that is thematically somewhere in ecological/science fiction territory, and which I liked better than the first time around. There was also vintage American ballet in a revival of Jerome Robbins’ The Cage, which represents a colony of female insects (Robbins initially considered them an Amazonian tribe), which devours any hapless male that comes their way. Begoña Cao and Jurgita Dronina were outstanding as, respectively, the Queen and “the Novice”. This exhilarating programme showed English National Ballet continuing to develop as a technically assured company with dancers evidently enjoying the journey.

The Place declared spring to be over with a summer season that opened with Nikki and JD in Knot, a tale of the duo’s ambiguous relationship told through a rollercoaster of words (the witty text was provided by Ben Duke), dance and impressive flurries of hand-to-hand acrobalance (plus the unexpected bonus of feedback from a live football commentary). This was followed a week later by a double-header in Alleyne Dance’s highly energetic and demandingly compulsive A Night Game, paired with James Finnemore’s much slower and stealthily hypnotic TERRA. It was a combination that would have been better had it been shown in reverse order.

After 200 performances spread over 33 countries, Sutra marked its tenth anniversary with a return to Sadler’s Wells where it all began as the theatre’s first major foray into international producing. The mix of Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s ingenuity, Antony Gormley’s wooden crates, Szymon Brzóska’s music and the martial art skills of 20 Shaolin monks with Ali Thabet (who long ago inherited Cherkaoui’s role) is certainly enduring, although had those caskets ever been varnished the gloss would, by now, have faded. The same is true of a production that is beginning to lose its original shine.

April also included the annual performance by the National Youth Dance Company (NYDC) at Sadler’s Wells. There are no complaints about the vitality and talent of these 41 youngsters in Sharon Eyal’s Used to be Blonde, but 50 minutes of black-costumed performers dancing on a dark, smoky stage to repetitive techno music was certainly hypnotic (and not always in a good way). It would have been a better at 20 minutes and perhaps the powers-that-be behind NYDC might in future consider a triple bill that brought more scope to the performers and more dance for the paying audience.

Adrienne Hart of Neon Dance curated a strange, eclectic evening of music and dance for Sadler’s Wells’ Wild Card series at the Lilian Baylis Studio, the best of which was a memorably improvised encounter between pianist John Kameel Farah and dancer Maëva Berthelot. Her fractured, dislocated movements were absorbing – she frequently essayed the movements of a lolloping marionette heavily accented with the muscular control of hip hop and occasionally (surprisingly) slipping into neoclassical ballet. The close-quarter intimacy of being seated on the floor, between pianist and dancer, further heightened the impact of this arresting performance.

The launch of Leicester’s Let’s Dance International Frontiers (LDIF), a festival that opened on International Dance Day (April 29), took place at The Place and included an impromptu solo performance by Hatti Dawson, a confident contemporary dancer, as well as some fascinating reminiscences from the contemporary dance legend, Namron. His one-man show from LDIF comes to The Place on May 29.

What is April without a feria? There is clearly no substitute for being in a caseta at the Feria de abril, in Seville, but the Peña Flamenca de Londres held a joyful equivalent at its headquarters in Pimlico, full of gorgeous costumes, wonderful music and a hall packed with people dancing a rich mix of Sevillanas.

The Spanish theme continued into the last of April’s shows at the Lilian Baylis Studio with Carlos Pons Guerra’s imaginative Toro: Beauty and the Bull for his DeNada Dance Theatre. This deconstruction of both the pasodoble and Beauty and the Beast was performed to a glorious playlist of vintage Latin American music and enjoyed excellent performances from Marivi Da Silva (as the Bull) and Emma Walker (as Beauty). Their main duet sizzled with sensual heat in an Hispanic nod towards what we hope will be a glorious summer.

Caption: Emma Walker as Beauty in DeNada Dance Theatre’s Toro: Beauty and the Bull. Photograph by Joe Armitage.

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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