This glitzy evening proved that the Central School of Ballet has friends in abundance (or perhaps that should be hyphenated to “a-bun-dance”) but the aim of this gala event was clearly to encourage a few more. The School, founded in 1982 by the late Christopher Gable (still ever-present in both spirit and references) and Ann Stannard, is on the cusp of announcing some exciting new development plans, as foretold by one of the School Governors, Simon Cole, in both his introductory and closing remarks.
The event provided my first experience of the new(ish) St James Theatre, an off-West End venue that opened in September 2012, just over the road from Buckingham Palace. With tightly-packed seating for 312, it has the vertiginous thrill of a raked auditorium that could perhaps double as a climbing wall: seated back in row M, one observes the stage, rather giddily, through the lens of the lighting equipment. Built on the site of the fire-ravaged Westminster Theatre, this new theatrical phoenix provides an opportunity for smaller scale events and pre-West End try-outs and – in the social and location context – was an ideal venue for such a gala, even if the performance area seemed largely unsuited to the purpose of dance.
The pattern of the evening was to mix dance with speeches, wrapped around a lengthy interval for champagne, canapés and networking. Christopher Marney (an alumnus of Central), the School’s director, Sara Matthews, Sharon Watson (artistic director of Phoenix Dance Theatre) and Christopher Hampson (artistic director of Scottish Ballet) each spoke eloquently about what Central School means to them; Hampson’s articulate and profound contribution came apparently without any notes or prompts. A second career as an after-dinner speaker may be on the cards!
The dance programme alternated between several performances by the “home” team – dancers from Ballet Central (the school’s performing arm) – with contributions from important guest stars. These included two very different quartets: the 2 minute sweep of the crowd-pleasing cygnet dance from Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake; and an excerpt of Marney’s choreography from Two of a Kind for Ballet Black, danced beautifully by Cira Robinson, Kanika Carr, Christopher Renfurm and Jacob Wye. Scottish Ballet’s contribution came in a classy duet by James Cousins, danced passionately by Brenda Lee Grech and Lewis Landini. This included the memorable image of Landini rolling Grech over his thighs like a Cuban girl might roll a cigar. I recall that my first sighting of Landini came when he was a first-year student at Central, loaned out to the London Children’s Ballet. My, how he’s grown!
The Ballet Central dancers provided the ensemble pieces, getting the programme under way as ten of them combined for Andrew McNicol’s Continuum, a striking, momentum-building combination of classical phrases, elegantly joined together. Gable’s Five Lullabies brought an added sense of poignancy to proceedings, since it was made not long before his death, yet takes a capricious journey through the joys of youthfulness. Matthews, the school’s current director, was responsible for Rendezvous and Futility, two conjoined works that were inspired by the First World War poetry of Alan Seeger (I Have a Rendezvous with Death) and Wilfred Owen (Futility), both of which were movingly read by Sir Derek Jacobi, a patron of the Central School. This diptych was very sensitively performed by John O’Gara and Alexandra Davis. And then to the rousing finale of Marney’s Carousel Dances, choreographed to the wonderful descriptive music of Richard Rodgers, in which the Ballet Central dancers are led by Duncan Anderson and Emma Walker. It was a splendid, impactful way with which to end a happy evening. Or, perhaps, not quite, since there was still more champagne to be drunk and both old and new friends to be met.
A silent auction was launched on the evening (see www.centralschoolofballet.co.uk ) with bids being accepted up until midday on 21st July and the formal proceedings ended with the promise of more details to follow regarding Central School of Ballet’s ambitions for the future. With the portrait of Chris Gable looking down on events, we must wish them well in whatever plans are to be pursued.