2 April at Siobhan Davies Dance Studios
5 April at Clore Studio as part of Royal Ballet Dance Bites
It’s been over 6 years since I last saw a piece by Vanessa Fenton and that’s 6 years way too long. Between 2000 and 2011 her work featured regularly in the Royal Ballet’s Draft Works (and similar) bills for emerging choreographers and I wouldn’t have dreamt of missing one, just on the strength of her alone. Of one of her pieces Luke Jennings wrote that it “marked Fenton out as a potential Next Big Thing.” and he clearly lamented that the Royal Ballet didn’t properly support her and others’ development. It’s worth noting that back in 2009 Fenton’s Draft Works piece featured Mellisa Hamilton, Xander Parish and Sergei Polunin, all very gifted, and yet before long they all moved elsewhere, feeling stymied for one reason or another.
Fenton has been quietly bouncing back choreographically and this month presented her own double bill at Siobhan Davies Dance Studies and once again contributed a piece to the Royal Ballet’s latest Draft Works bill. Both performances showed that she has not lost any of her choreographic chops. They also showed her resourcefulness in making appealing works on dancers of all types – no big name stars here to confuse things and take the focus away from the choreographic movement itself.
The double bill at Siobhan Davies Studios featured 18 amateur dancers presented under the banner of ‘Tiny Mind Productions’. Formed by Jessica Tuzin after a chance conversation with Fenton, the two have run with it – to the point where they can credibly put a good show on and I hope they all do more together.
There were two pieces of roughly 20 minutes each. The first, Methuselah, had a soundtrack ranging from symphonic Beethoven to Leonard Cohen, and a few stops between. The only clue about the inspiration, or what it might be about, came in a lengthy quote about true and deep love from Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. Although it had ballet aesthetic and beauty it was not danced on pointe but in ballet slippers, the cast, bar one, all female and dressed in neat black leotards and leggings. The dancers come in a delightful variety of ages and bodies – that’s not cheap enthusiasm but genuine admiration and enjoyment in seeing ballet’s technique deployed more freely. These dancers are fit, coached well and presented the work professionally. And they did all this in a relatively small performance space with a good-sized audience all very close to – brave and bravo I say.
Fenton’s choreography in Methuselah memorably concentrated on painterly groups and also clever eddies of natural movement spooling off around the stage. There are also some playful Swan Lake references and sections where all the group look out at us or something mysterious close by – it draws you in, but why they look I don’t know. The whimsical naturism included a bit of running (think Usain Bolt just released from the starting blocks) and moments that reminded me of the musicality of Mark Morris. That and the clever groupings of Crystal Pite – there is always something going on in different ways and yet all looks harmonious and balanced. So many less experienced choreographers concentrate on just handling a few dancers (much of the time all they have access to), so seeing a lot of bodies cleverly deployed together, where none is a principal or soloist standing above the others, stands out excitingly. There is, though, a moment at the end where one female is lifted while travelling behind a packed group – it’s such a blooming and glorious bit of movement but with it you realise how wonderful the 20 minutes have been without such ‘standard’ ballet tropes, great though they are.
The second work, The Face of Forgiveness, was to the dramatically evocative music of Johann Johannsson and Ludovico Einaudi, the former composer also being used by Fenton for her Clore studio piece. Again there was no clear note in the programme as to what it was about other than a quote from Dickens’s Christmas Carol – from the ghost of Jacob Marley and talking about living with the chains of life he made for himself. (The only thing I’d criticise Fenton for generally is a frustrating lack of clarity about her works in programmes and when talking more publicly.) A rather melancholic piece that like Methuselah uses all the dancers with ready ease and notably had an Antony Gormley moment, the dancers just standing as if a posse of his cast-iron statues. All up, I enjoyed the show a lot, for being both harmonious and clever and showing ballet and dance so well on different bodies.
Three days later the Royal Ballet’s Draft Works bill opened in the Clore Studio at the Royal Opera House and Fenton, with another 5 dance makers, showed the results of their working in their own time with company dancers. Sadly the Royal Ballet have requested that the night is not reviewed. A shame but see what follows as capturing what happened and as far as it goes a response to what we saw in Fenton’s untitled work. Jann Parry was there and jotted some notes down on this which well describe the piece:
“Vanessa Fenton organised her four dancers into sculptural clusters and was the only choreographer in the Draft Works evening to make use of pointe work. Her sole female dancer was Arianna Maldini, a member of the Young Dancers programme and winner of the Ursula Moreton Award (2015).”
“Set to yearning music by Icelandic composer Johann Johannsson, Fenton’s piece explored the idea of searching, with Maldini as the upward-reaching figure among the three men. She was treated with respect, unlike the brutal manipulations required by many modern-day choreographers. The men, David Donnelly, Kevin Emberton and Giacomo Rovero, lifted each other and lined up in perfectly matching arabesques.””
Jann’s note concluded “A quartet worthy of being developed further.” And I’d very much agree with that.
Goodness knows where Fenton’s work goes next but she well marked her card before and has just done so again. If anybody deserves a bigger break it’s Vanessa Fenton.