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Nourishment for the imagination

Posted on January 22, 2020

Dane Hurst Estela Merlos in Shobana Jeyasingh Dances Staging Schiele photo Foteini Christofilopoulou 2

Before current events hijack all our concentration, I want to tie up some loose ends from 2019. Engulfed in fairytales as that year wound down, I kept thinking about choreographers who write for adults. Their dances lodge in your thoughts, sometimes for years, nourishing the imagination and spreading their impact in all directions. Though illness prevented me from covering two of these when they came to London, neither one has left my mind. Gregory Maqoma’s Cion arrived at the Barbican as part of Dance Umbrella; commissioned by Southbank Centre, Shobana Jeyasingh’s Staging Schiele reached the Queen Elizabeth Hall in November. Naturally both pieces were widely reviewed then, but that doesn’t mean they’re gone for good.

Equally haunting, the two could hardly differ more in content, style, and music. At the heart of Cion (as in Zion, the African church), a professional mourner dominates a “virtual landscape of dissolution, bringing about catharsis.” Shouting, praying, romancing a woman who is torn from his grasp and raped, amid a bereaved ensemble possessed by spirits of the departed he prowls a graveyard planted with crosses. Suffused with loss, the atmosphere drips memory like a sponge while the sharp snap of a snare drum and a vocal quartet, singing a cappella in Zulu, render Ravel’s Bolero as you’ve never heard it before. Cion closes memorably with an ensemble of ghosts, draped in tattered chiffon like Spanish moss, advancing sombrely in echoing tap shoes to rap out Bolero’s rhythm with increasing speed.

Taut with tension and lean as lines inked on paper, Jeyasingh’s evocation of Schiele sets the artist’s anguished portrait in the context of the women he immortalised – we see three of them, who may represent his wife, mother and mistress. Orlando Gough’s score and Ben Cullen Williams’ meshed steel panels frame and enhance the erotic encounters, simultaneously shielding and revealing them as Schiele’s drawings did. In the title role, Dane Hurst subtly resolves the shifting perspectives of Schiele’s biography and creativity, blurring the distinction between his experience of life and his artistic interpretation of it.

Pictured: Shobana Jeyasingh’s Staging Schiele. Photographs by Foteini Christofilopoulou

The pieces I saw in New York before Christmas still occupy my imagination too. On Saturdays for six months, the Isamu Noguchi Museum offered a bold experiment by the Kenyan-born choreographer and artist Brendan Fernandes. Inspired by Noguchi’s collaboration with Martha Graham, he borrowed the contraction-release element of Graham’s technique to make an original work for three dancers to display in the galleries, manoeuvring them on, through and around Noguchi’s sculptural creations, particularly for Appalachian Spring. Provocative in conception, the choreography proved undistinguished in execution, but the idea has stuck with me, as has the compelling presence of Victor Lozano, whose skill and authority, exactly like Dane Hurst’s, hold your attention like magnets.

George Balanchine’s version of The Nutcracker occupies New York City Ballet for nearly six weeks at Christmas, and even those who grew up with it, as I did, return to it happily. This year, I noticed a two-page history of the production in the foyer, available free of charge and printed in English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Japanese and Russian.

I also noticed how carefully Balanchine planned the ballet for children, not only those out front but those potentially preparing for a career. The Act I party belongs to them, from their opening march and galop through the Grosvater dance; children play some of the mice and all the toy soldiers, and a little boy, not a young adult, rescues Marie and escorts her into the forest. Act II opens with a dozen small angels, gliding in lacy patterns like skaters; a children’s ensemble supports the adult Candy Cane, and eight little polichinelles burst from beneath Mother Ginger’s skirt to waltz.

The company’s Nutcracker Project, now 40 years old, introduces ballet to children in public primary schools. Those who participate in the six in-school workshops, learning some basic steps and creating their own to suit the story, enjoy a matinée all to themselves. Urged to name their favourite portion of the ballet, 99 per cent of them choose the snow – music and movement, nothing else – which enchants the adult audience as well. How many viewers follow dance today because of a single performance they never forgot?

Pictured: New York City Ballet in George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker. Photographs by Erin Baiano.

Shobana Jeyasingh’s Material Men redux returns in February. Click here for details.


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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