Memorable Performances of 2016
This isn’t necessarily a “best of”; it’s more the works which have insistently stuck in the mind. This year it was often the smaller and more modestly-scaled dance productions that made the greatest impact. Sometimes these were intimate events, yet still attempting grand themes with limited resources. There were memorable larger productions too, most notably from English National Ballet. 2016 was a particularly fine year of achievement for stage designers. It was also a year where, though the established performers turned in many solid performances, it was the rising stars whose potential began to be revealed that everyone wanted to talk about.
Each year there are always a few regrets, works that you miss through the sheer logjam of events. I’m really sorry I didn’t make it to Cathy Marston’s Jane Eyre for Northern Ballet. On the other hand, there were works that I did see that disappointed, including David Bintley’s rather messy take on The Tempest for Birmingham Royal Ballet and Wayne McGregor’s indulgent Multiverse for the Royal.
The Linbury Studio Theatre (within the Royal Opera House) closed its doors for a long renovation project this month, and it is already much missed. The final performances there were Will Tuckett’s Elizabeth, an intimate portrait of Queen Elizabeth I using text and song from the period. Zenaida Yanowsky’s Elizabeth was capricious, regal, volatile and commanding. Carlos Acosta, playing the various men in her life, seized on the opportunity to be outrageously funny (something he seldom had a chance to do as a leading man) as Sir Walter Raleigh. It was perfectly suited to the space, and ideally tailored to its performers.
Another work closely tied to its surroundings was Akram Khan’s Until the Lions performed in the round at The Roundhouse. Though there were only three in the cast, the themes here were epic. There were terrific performances from both the women (Ching-Ying Chien, Christine Joy Ritter) as the wronged woman and the revenging spirit she morphs into. The designs by Tim Yip gave us the earth cracked open by the cosmic forces unleashed by immolation.
Not London I know, but a real treat this month was an Ashton double bill of The Dream / A Month in the Country by Birmingham Royal Ballet, and very much worth the journey up to its home theatre. The Dream had a delightful and strongly-cast quartet of lovers (Delia Matthews, Brandon Lawrence, Celine Gittens, Iain Mackay) all of whom put their characters and dilemmas across clearly. A Month in the Country was new to the company but they looked very much at home. Laura Day was possessed of raging teenage hormones as the young ward Vera.
Mark Bruce brought his dark dance version of The Odyssey to Wilton’s Music Hall. It’s a bleak view of how the gods manipulate our fate, using a cast of eleven and a lot of ingenuity. Bruce concentrated on the human cost of conflict and separation. His Odysseus and Penelope looked so damaged by their experiences that there was little chance of a happy-ever-after for them. Hannah Kidd was both steely and stoic as Penelope.
An Italian in Madrid was a new Richard Alston narrative work set to Scarlatti and about the musician’s travels in Spain. Alston is a veteran dance maker; here he found new inspiration in the form of kathak dancer Vidya Patel, who came to his attention in the BBC Young Dancer competition. He made one of his most elegant, formal and courtly duets for her and Liam Riddick as the prince who woos her. Her speedy kathak turns combined happily with more contemporary vocabulary to produce something fresh and different.
English National Ballet presented a programme of three new works from women choreographers at Sadler’s Wells under the title of She Said. Artistic Director Tamara Rojo had the further good idea of commissioning a vivid and colourful front cloth from the artist Grayson Perry which proved a popular talking point. The standout piece from this bill was Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s Broken Wings, a reflection on the life of the artist Frida Kahlo. The corps of men as dancing Fridas from her various self-portraits were particularly striking. Rojo was a passionate Kahlo and Irek Mukhamedov, returning to a dancing role after an absence of many years, was a magnificently rumpled Diego Rivera. He has certainly forgotten nothing about partnering. This is a work that I hope ENB will bring back as it deserves to be seen again, but there is no sign of that in their currently published schedules.
The Royal Ballet revived Christopher Wheeldon’s recent Winter’s Tale. The full-length narrative work with a commissioned score is a real challenge to pull off as other productions this year were to show. However, this one is definitely looking like a keeper. There are meaty roles here for the leads to dig into, and strong performances all round, but Yanowsky’s Paulina must be impossible to improve on.
What can we say about Liam Scarlett’s Frankenstein for the Royal Ballet? It wasn’t one of the great productions of the year, but It was hard to ignore as the Royal’s flagship new full-length commission. It was much discussed with fierce views for and against. The work certainly had its memorable moments and commendably committed performances, despite too much earnest exposition. However, it needs determined cutting and shaping to bring the relationship between Frankenstein and the Creature into stronger focus.
In a complete contrast in scale, I was enchanted by Lost Dog’s Paradise Lost (lies unopened beside me) at Battersea Arts Centre. This was a solo show from Ben Duke that proved a funny and touching delight. He recounted a variant of Milton’s Paradise Lost, from the creation of the world to the expulsion of Adam and Eve from paradise, playing all the parts, including a rather diffident God, with digressions about the difficulties of getting his kids ready for school. No wonder it had already garnered so many awards.
Crystal Pite and Jonathan Young’s Betroffenheit is as much theatre as dance. At the time I wasn’t sure if it could be classed as enjoyable, given obsessive recall of grief over traumatic deaths, but it has certainly got staying power and really sticks powerfully in the memory. The cast is small and hard-working, morphing through many roles. It returns to Sadler’s Wells next year.
One event which was intriguing and thought-provoking didn’t involve dance at all. No Body was a series of lighting installations at Sadler’s Wells which allowed you to roam on stage and all around the building to experience lighting designs by Michael Hulls and Lucy Carter, among others. It was a fascinating and sometimes disorienting experience to stand on stage as the lighting rig descended threateningly towards you. A little girl had the best idea: as Michael Hulls painted the stage with moving strips of light, she gleefully jumped from one to another as if they were puddles.
The behemoth of the Bolshoi rolled into Covent Garden and opened its three-week season with a new version of Don Quixote. The leads on the first night looked a little uncomfortable in their roles but the depth of the Bolshoi’s resources was evident in the soloists and ensemble. Anna Tikhomirova was a lively street dancer, the first of a series of performances in this run in which she really caught the eye.
The Bolshoi’s (or their promoters) choices of repertoire were fairly conservative for this season, but one work which was new to London was Jean-Christophe Maillot’s Taming of the Shrew. It’s a surprisingly spare production (well, spare for the Bolshoi) in terms of the simplicity of the stage design and the modest number in the cast, with no large corps. The best thing about this were the performances of the dancers who created the roles: Vladislav Lantratov swaggered his way through as Petruchio and Ekaterina Krysanova was a blistering Katharina. Their chemistry was terrific. It was the performers rather than the choreography itself that linger in the mind.
Exodus was a site specific-work made by Dane Hurst for the glorious surroundings of Dulwich Picture Gallery. He assembled a large cast of young dancers to fill the narrow spaces. It is great to be so up close and personal with the performers. In the first half we were all free to wander at will, so you could follow different groups into different rooms and view the dance against a backdrop of paintings by Rembrandt or Claude Lorrain. Seats were provided for the second half, so you could choose which vantage point you wanted down the long space. There was a very fine duet in this piece that it would be good to see again.
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater came to Sadler’s Wells and also toured the UK. It had been a few years since their last visit and it was great to see these talented dancers again. They brought us more than just the entirely wonderful and still remarkably fresh Revelations. The new work Exodus by Rennie Harris (yes there really were different two works with the same title in the same month) with its gunshots and falling bodies was a powerful reflection on present-day experience put across in a fluid mix of hip hop and contemporary styles.
At The Place, in Use My Body While It’s Still Young, Norwegian choreographer Hege Haagenrud took a cool and unflinching look at the unfashionable subject of ageing, and society’s dismissive or embarrassed attitudes to older people’s appetites and longings, including sexual ones. She was extraordinarily well served by a cast of three veteran dancers whose ages ranged from 65 to 79, who imbue simple gestures with a deep meaning and can make a simple turn of the head so full of sadness. Siv Ander has the most extraordinary stage presence. It was a short piece that packed a lot into its 50 minutes.
Fractus V was a melting pot of a piece put together by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui using dancers with backgrounds in circus, flamenco, breakdance and contemporary. Cherkaoui was performing in it too at his rubber-limbed best. There was a mix of musical influences also, all of which came together into a coherent and persuasive whole. There were moments of humour along the way, but like so much that makes the memorable list this year, there was an underlying theme about violence and rage and its corrosive effects on life today.
Two items for this month share the same designer, Tim Yip who also designed Khan’s Until the Lions earlier in the year. He must be a very busy man and he’s certainly a very successful one.
Yang Liping’s Under Siege was part of Sadler’s Wells Out of Asia season. This was the story of early struggles in Chinese history between competing armies to become the first ruler of the country. The battles were fought out by the wielding of huge flags, by performers hurling themselves through the air in somersaults in a mix of traditional moves, martial arts and more modern vocabulary. There was an extraordinary and intense performance from a man, Hu Shenyuan, undertaking a female role as a doomed courtesan. It was always beautiful to look at, if at times impenetrable. Subtitles might have helped here. The final battle scene was fought out over a carpet of red feathers hurled into the air.
Tim Yip also designed English National Ballet’s new version of Giselle choreographed by Akram Khan. This may have been the dance event of the year. This used a newly-commissioned score incorporating fragments of the Adam original – a major achievement, though not without a few flaws. Narrative points in the first half could be clearer, but this could be fixed. Khan has reimagined a classic story in a modern setting while preserving its essence. The long-haired, murderous, stick-wielding Willis are genuinely scary. Tim Yip’s oppressive giant wall bears down on the action like fate personified.
Another even more radical reinterpretation of a classic came from Michael Keegan-Dolan’s version of Swan Lake (Loch na hEala). He has already done a version of Giselle. Here the action is relocated to rural Ireland with young lives blighted by the corrupt figures of authority, whether priest or police, with abused girls transformed into swans as an echo of the legend of The Children of Lir. This was part dance, part theatre, wholly weird and compelling.
The BalletBoyz’s Young Men, choreographed by Ivan Perez, originated in the theatre where it seemed too long and unfocussed. Remade as a film for the BBC, it has been shortened, and the sequences reordered, and now looks much better and more cohesive than the stage version, and more affecting. Filmed in what looked like authentic mud and rain in Northern France we saw raw recruits being trained, going into battle, thinking of home and some slowly disintegrating under the pressure of bombardment. This was a great collective achievement for the company.
The Royal Ballet’s much-loved Peter Wright production of The Nutcracker was illuminated by Francesca Hayward, made principal at the beginning of the season, as the Sugar Plum Fairy. It’s not just the ease with which she does the steps, it’s also the warmth of her presence and a palpable delight in dancing that is endearing. Her star has been steadily in the ascendant for some time with another standout performance in Rhapsody in January 2016. We have her debut as Aurora to look forward to in 2017 – something to be cheerful about in depressing times.
Matthew Bourne’s version of The Red Shoes for his company New Adventures was much anticipated. The most beautifully realised aspect of this production for me was Lez Brotherston’s clever and adaptable designs. It has been a good year for design in general but he really outdid himself here, moving the action seamlessly from the south of France to an East End Music Hall. His revolving curtain bisected a world of glamour and one of grubbiness and sweat, rapidly switching us from a view of the smart auditorium to a louche back stage. Stunning.