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Something Old, Something New

Posted on July 4, 2017

Crystal Pites Emergence by Scottish Ballet photo Mihaela Bodlovich 8415

A distinguished dance critic once declared she never wanted to see Swan Lake again. If the statement strikes you as extreme, don’t forget there are lots of fish in the sea, and it’s often more fun to reel in a fresh one than to catch what you expect.

The spring season landed new winners, new losers and a familiar work that has seen its best days. Kenneth Tindall’s Casanova for Northern Ballet lay somewhere in between. It ticks the popular choreographic boxes – narrative, sexy, extravagantly physical – and dresses the hot-blooded characters in suitably luxuriant or skimpy costumes. At Sadler’s Wells, the dancers gave every step full value, pouncing on the opportunity to show their interpretive skill.

If only the choreography hadn’t let them down by reducing drama to costume drama. Casanova’s erotic entanglement with a pair of matching sisters ties all three into graphically suggestive knots, but little else measures up to that invention. The story remains muddled, and the ghosts of Manon, Mayerling, The Rake’s Progress and even Cabaret hover over Tindall’s trite version of debauchery and tenderness.

Scottish Ballet got even less when it acquired Angelin Preljocaj’s MC/14/22 (Ceci est mon corps), which supposedly deals with the male body, the body of Christ, and the Last Supper. What does it mean about choreography if a ballet’s most interesting moments involve no movement at all? Arranged around a long table in several immobile friezes, the cast of 12 men seemed ready to explode with energy, and the longer they held their poses, the more expression I found in their bodies.

Otherwise, however, Preljocaj dehumanised those men while exhausting them pointlessly, driving them through soulful embraces and acrobatic manoeuvres that transformed their strength into mechanics. How does he justify the indignities heaped on these artists? Will pieces like this build an audience for dance?

Crystal Pite’s choreography certainly will, and her Emergence, on the same programme, also proved that imagination can enliven black costumes and sensitive lighting, exactly the design elements that Tindall and Preljocaj wasted. Pite’s first chance to work with a big ballet company prompted her to investigate structure beyond its tiered organisation. Guided by biological research, she focused eventually on nature, specifically on bee swarms, in which the group dynamics are shared efforts rather than hierarchical.

The structure of Emergence displays men and women grouped by intention and tasks fulfilled through differing capabilities. You see shifts of power between the groups, periods of relative dominance, small moves produced in unison as if by instinct and choreographic intricacy arising from massed details.

Pite has said, “In setting the work [for National Ballet of Canada], I was thinking about how the swarm locates and builds a […] specialised space that fits their bodies and facilitates their work. This made me look at these dancers and their theatre in a new light.” It takes talent and intelligence to explore art, nature, and their distinct characteristics simultaneously. Remember her Betroffenheit at Sadler’s Wells? Her Flight Pattern at the Royal Opera House? Emergence is nothing like either one, and all the more fascinating for its originality.

Though preparing a new Swan Lake for The Royal Ballet’s next season, Liam Scarlett delivered something far more intriguing than a narrative in his new Symphonic Dances for that company. A bold abstract response to Rachmaninoff’s orchestral score, it provides a striking setting for Zenaida Yanowsky and establishes the company’s men as a passionate foil for her singular presence. She’s elegance personified in the first movement, in a swirl of silk that capitalises on her bearing and piercing extensions; in the second movement, as the focus for an ensemble of eight bare-chested men in flaring skirts, her legs flash beneath a cropped jacket as she tantalises those partners with cool restrained allure.

Had this ballet’s impact been known sooner, she could have danced it for her final performance and avoided Marguerite and Armand, which was Frederick Ashton’s last work for Fonteyn; the historian David Vaughan has called it “a tribute to everything that Fonteyn had achieved, a fable of her attainments and inevitable decline.”

Yanowsky’s attainments differ considerably from Fonteyn’s, and Symphonic Dances succeeds because Scarlett fit it so well to her body, style and personality. Her recent retirement robs the company of a valuable and much loved artist; on the other hand, it might be a good idea to retire Marguerite and Armand, which lost its theatrical value with its creators.

Pictured: Scottish Ballet’s Bethany Kingsley-Garner and Victor Zarallo in Crystal Pite’s Emergence. Photograph by Mihaela Bodlovic.


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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