2017 Tour: Romeo and Juliet (Ballroom scene), Mya, La Bayadere (act 1 excerpts), Indigo Children, Dracula (excerpt), Highland Fling (act 2)
London, Shaw Theatre
3 June 2017
Last year Christopher Marney took over as artistic director of Ballet Central, the final year touring company of Central School of Ballet, and there’s a definite change of feel to this first tour show of his. An alumnus of the school, Marney, who came to prominence with Matthew Bourne as a dancer and then choreographer, has also made a lot of work on his own account (not least for Ballet Central in the past) and has long flown the flag for narrative works and that’s what comes over from this bill – lots of dramatic dance. That and a modest move to show fewer works of longer duration and with generally full recorded scores rather than the keyboard-driven approach of earlier tours. It’s a refreshing change with perhaps less of a homespun feeling than earlier, if that homespun could be awfully winning.
The tour repertoire is not fixed and at the Shaw Theatre what we didn’t get to see is what I think of as a ‘traditional’ Ballet Central piece – Malgorzata Dzierzon’s Sleepless. Dzierzon is ex-Rambert and growing as a choreographer and here was coupled with the schools music director (/composer in residence), Philip Feeney. ‘New’ choreographer, new commission, custom score by Feeney – a pattern oft repeated and its omission from the London show really made the point on the change of approach.
The evening started with Jenna Lee’s Romeo and Juliet. Lee is ex-English National Ballet and starting to make a choreographic name, but a 20 minute take on the world’s greatest love story is a big commission for anybody. Lee shunned showing us her take on the Balcony pas de deux (probably wisely) and instead concentrated on the Ballroom and surrounding scenes which also allows lots of dancers to be part of the action. It leads to a full stage with a lot going on and Lee is still learning how to handle numbers and yet still direct or focus us on to what really matters. But she handled the meeting of the lovers well and I like the way Juliet floats above the party, as if in a dream, and tracks Romeo’s every movement. Craig McFarlane, as Romeo, has a sprightly look and jump, if he seemed a bit rushed at times, rather than finding space in the music to give an extended line. Amy McEntee’s Juliet was very girlish and well acted, if the disparity of height between her and her Romeo was not so helpful to either. All up, it generally captured the sweep of the Prokofiev score and a move forward for Jenna Lee.
At the end of the evening was what you might call the blockbuster piece of the tour – 30 minutes of Matthew Bourne in the form of Act II of his Highland Fling. Bourne’s take on La Sylphide is a wonderful piece of work, full of wit, style and pathos. It’s been set by Bourne, Etta Murfitt and Kerry Biggin and that contact alone must have been amazing for the students. And such care shows on stage as the students zip about as rather wayward Sylphs, each selling their role and movement as if their life depended on it. The role of James is at the heart of the work and Adam Davies did well as the besotted lad drawn into the spirit world and determined to keep his Sylph at all costs. He and Brittanie Dillon as the lead Sylph looked well-matched, touchingly selling their doomed love. The only slightly jolting note is that the costumes are not the originals but Central’s own, if based on the original Lez Brotherston designs. In recent years Richard Gellar (the then Resident Costume Designer, a role which no longer exists) did much to elevate the design and making of costumes for the tour to nigh on professional levels and his departure marks a return to what you might call normal levels of serviceable school costuming. Ultimately it was noticeable that the best costumes on the night were not generally done in-house this year and that’s a shame having achieved a higher benchmark.
There was more drama in the form of a 12-minute extract from Michael Pink and Christopher Gable’s much-loved Dracula. Although Gable was the clear boss I always think of Gable and Pink really putting Northern Ballet Theatre (the earlier name of Northern Ballet) on the dance map and drawing an adoring and regular audience to the company. The selected part concentrates on Dracula and Harker and features 3 vampire ladies – beautifully vamped up by Sophie Hull, Rowan Parker and Brittanie Dillon. Pink’s choreography is as sexy and polished as ever I remember and it made you wish that Dracula was still in Northern’s repertoire. Christopher Marney, having created so much for Ballet Central in the past, this year decided to mount the classical piece of the eventing – an extract from La Bayadere, part Petipa and part of his own devising. It was pleasant but I’ve known sharper classical dancing from Ballet Central. There were 18 students involved, whereas in the past only a few (the best ones one assumes) tackled the full-on ballet piece, often with military precision – and the result impressed. Although Central School has ballet in its title, they are famous for giving a much more rounded dance training than that might imply and while all the students can do ballet steps for sure it’s not a first love or aptitude for all. For the avoidance of doubt I’m not saying this was incredibly sloppy (it wasn’t) but I think the former approach worked better for the school and students overall.
Liam Scarlett, Artist in Residence at the Royal Ballet, Artistic Associate at Queensland Ballet and much in demand around the world generally, had a piece in – his Indigo Children, from 2008, originally for Ballet Black. Presented in its original blue, black and purple Yukiko Tsukamoto designs, this cool modernist ballet, to Philip Glass and for 3 couples, really cuts the mustard and was looking in fine shape. Congratulations to Cira Robinson and Damien Johnson of Ballet Black for setting it so well and the dancers involved – Amy McEntee, Craig McFarlane, Kanon Kihara, Eric Caterer-Cave, Moeno Oba and Adam Davies. Scarlett has now moved on but Indigo Children is modern and likable without scaring the horses and reminds me of Christopher Wheeldon’s work a few years prior and some of Twyla Tharp’s ballet zip.
But for me the best of the new/recent works was Mya, by the legendary Christopher Bruce. To Arvo Part’s well known Spiegel im Spiegel it was a very strange and surreal affair. Three students (Brittanie Dillon, Charlotte Peers and Liam Lindsay) in all-enveloping penguin suits present us with a sullen tableau. The stretchy costumes allow the dancers to show emotion and even to do duets as they go about their deadpan search for something more in life. That seems to come when they sprout arms and the movement picks up, but ‘freedom’ tasted, the arms return to their confinement and the piece ends as it began 8 minutes earlier. Goodness knows what it means, but it’s entertaining watching and trying to fathom it. In the programme Christopher Bruce gives no hints as to motivation but rather emphasises the process that created it, involving lots of workshops with the students and as with the Bourne that must have been a really enriching experience. A quirky result I’m sure we will see again.
All up, it was a good Ballet Central show and Marney’s direction of travel should broaden the tour’s appeal to theatres and the audience. That and the focus seemed to be more on the whole company rather than smaller pieces. As ever I wish the students well in their search for work. Certainly being involved in Ballet Central touring is big a differentiator – go sell your wonderful experience!