Lynette Halewood with her personal selection of London dance memories this last year…
These are the performances, events and people that stuck in the mind for whatever reason, grouped by themes that suggested themselves…
Head and shoulders above other new work this year was Crystal Pite’s Flight Pattern for the Royal Ballet. This was one of Artistic Director Kevin O’Hare’s many new commissions, and he must be relieved that this one really delivered. Pite used group forces to show us huddled lines of migrants struggling towards an uncertain future, with a compassionate view of their loses on the way. Unsentimental, gripping and powerful.
Israel Galvan’s FLA.CO.MEN at Sadler’s Wells was a surrealist take on flamenco. He stopped and ate a packet of crisps, was pelted with paper balls by his musicians, danced his way around the stalls in the dark, and sometimes gave us busts of astonishingly virtuosic dancing. Easy to understand why it irritated some, but his determination to push ever further at the boundaries is impressive.
ETM: Double Down from Dorrance Dance showed a vibrant new way of looking at tap as clever, cool, musical and inventive. The highly individual performers, (not least Michelle Dorrance herself) play electronic tap boards to create their own accompaniment and it looked like enormous fun.
Liam Scarlett created Symphonic Dances as a final celebration of the charisma of Zenaida Yanowsky. She was in truly imperial form, an authority figure who commands the male corps. A deferential James Hay timidly approached her, curled up at her feet, and she covered him with her skirt. It was a change from the usual male / female dynamic on stage and good to see Scarlett returning to form.
The Linbury at the ROH, the Queen Elizabeth Hall and Purcell Room at the South Bank remained out of action for renovation this year. The Coliseum has less availability now for dance productions, due to the cash-strapped English National Opera’s decision to fill it with big musical productions like Bat out of Hell instead. New work needs to be nourished in smaller places prepared to be experimental, and there seems to have been somewhat less of the quirky around in London this year.
Wayne McGregor utilised the big space of the Roundhouse for a promenade production (+/- Human) mixing dancers from his own company with guests from the Royal Ballet, accompanied by a fleet of flying drone robots. It was rewarding to see dancers like Edward Watson and Joseph Sissens so close when you got the chance, but the action often seemed to be taking place elsewhere. The flying white spheres were definitely memorable though, and the chance to interact with them after the performance was enthusiastically seized on by the audience.
Good things from smaller companies
Rosie Kay toured her award-winning 5 Soldiers again and I caught up with it in a Bloomsbury drill hall. Made after the choreographer spent time embedded in an army unit this gave gives us a view of what it’s like to be a soldier. We moved from drill, to banter between mates, to the tension of waiting for combat, and its aftermath.
At the performance I saw the cast were one down due to injury, (no cover is possible with their limited resources) but they were determined and inventive enough to reconfigure the work successfully, and it was compelling.
At the Place, Fevered Sleep’s Men and Girls Dance was just that, five male dancers, and nine young girls dancing. This might provoke a sharp intake of breath, and it did make you think hard about all that we might worry about concerning relations between non-family grown-ups and kids. But it became a touching demonstration of optimism about us humans in an increasingly bleak age.
A company from Australia, The Farm, presented Cockfight at Laban in Deptford. In an office setting, a younger man tries to take down the older alpha male, with the two performers vying for dominance over the desk, the filing cabinet, the phone and the whiteboard. Madcap, but somehow a very recognisable extension of office politics, and very funny.
At the Lilian Baylis in March Aakash Odedra gave an enterprising double bill, Echoes / I Imagine. The first showed his remarkable skills in classical Indian kathak dance, with the second a contrasting altogether more contemporary piece, again about migrants and belonging, one of the recurring themes of 2017.
Larger UK companies
English National Ballet demonstrated their versatility, showing both the classic Mary Skeaping Giselle in January and a revival of the Akram Khan reimagined version later in autumn. It’s unusual for two so radically different readings to coexist in a company, but both of these were put across with care and dedication. Khan’s wilis were scarier. ENB also took on Pina Bausch’s Rite of Spring, another wholly different style and their energy and commitment scored another success.
The Royal Ballet continued to deliver the blockbusters that it does so well with a run of MacMillan’s Mayerling. As well as much loved dancers reprising their roles, there were interesting debuts too. That the nice Federico Bonelli found a darkness inside himself for Rudolf was a surprise: less so perhaps the headlong impetuosity that Natalia Osipova found as Mary Vetsera. The run of Sleeping Beauty offered further pleasures, particularly in seeing the new generation of young British dancers (Francesca Hayward, Reece Clarke, Matthew Ball and Yasmine Naghdi) debut in the major roles with aplomb.
Sadly, we don’t get as many visits from international ballet and dance companies as we have been fortunate to enjoy in the past. Costs of touring and venue availability play a part. The major visit was the Mariinsky at the ROH in summer, though overall this wasn’t memorable as you would have hoped, leading off with a rather ill at ease Don Quixote. Individual dancers from outside the UK seem to guest more frequently, and it’s great to see them when they do – Paris Opera Ballet’s Josua Hoffalt in ENB’s Romeo and Juliet for example – but it’s a brief tantalising glance rather than a real chance to evaluate a different tradition.
This year was the 25th anniversary of the death of Kenneth MacMillan. To celebrate his legacy a series of programmes were presented by the five major UK companies (Royal, Birmingham, English National, Northern, Scottish) at the Royal Opera House, masterminded by Kevin O’Hare. Such shared programming hasn’t been attempted before, and the logistics must have been tricky but it was good to see other UK companies taking on MacMillan’s work. ENB looked at home in Song of the Earth. I was sorry to have to miss some of this, but I will catch up with Northern Ballet’s MacMillan triple bill in Leeds next year.
In 2018 it will be 30 years since the death of Frederick Ashton. So how about a celebration among the same companies of his work? The Frederick Ashton Foundation put on a couple of Masterclasses this year as part of their continuing series, and it was fascinating to watch rare pieces like the Raymonda variations or Le Rossignol being coached, rehearsed and filmed. Isn’t it time that some of these pieces were seen on the main stage?
Female choreographers featured strongly among the memorable works this year. In addition to her work for the RB, Crystal Pite’s Emergence for Scottish Ballet at Sadler’s Wells was a thrilling view of hive-like activity. Another distinctly female view was Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s wry and funny take on Red Riding Hood for Ballet Black, which gave us a gutsy heroine beset by some very modern temptations. She also created Reversible for Danza Contemporánea de Cuba’s programme at the Barbican. Ochoa is definitely one whose works I want to see more of, in particular a revival of her 2016 Frida Kahlo work, Broken Wings for ENB, though sadly this doesn’t seem to feature in their current plans.
The ghost of Pina Bausch was much in evidence. Her own company was at Sadler’s Wells in February, and ENB performed her Rite of Spring in April. Her influence was felt strongly in other works such as Gandini Juggling’s Smashed where juggling with apples morphed into familiar Bauschian takes on the often toxic relations of men and women, including some very cathartic smashing of crockery at the end. Another work in Bausch territory was Ben Duke’s distinctly odd Goat for Rambert. It wasn’t entirely successful but it was decidedly arresting to see a kind of suburban Rite taking place in a faded civic centre with a naïve and excitable commentator (Miguel Altunaga in very fine form).
Memorable for the wrong reasons
With great expectations and much earnest talk about giving dancers more autonomy, Sergei Polunin launched Project Polunin at Sadler’s Wells in spring with three short works, one of which he choreographed. Sadly, this turned out to be a sorry, amateurish affair, with poor choices of repertory. I am still having difficulty in getting Polunin’s costume as Narcissus out of my head. The gold sequinned jockstrap and lilac boots combination was embarrassingly, jaw-droppingly awful.
Ones that got away
Every year, there are always productions that you just can’t get to for some reason, including ones that friends later rave about. I did see Jenna Roberts and Tyrone Singleton of Birmingham Royal Ballet rehearsing the pas de deux from MacMillan’s Concerto in the Clore. They were beautifully matched and it was smoothly and fluidly executed with great control. I’m sorry to have missed them and BRB performing Concerto on the main ROH stage.
Somehow this year through diary clashes I regret that I failed to see the Richard Alston Dance Company. Gypsy Mixture always seems elusively out of reach.
Dancers particularly catching the eye
Jonathan Goddard featured in Sea of Troubles, a production from Yorke Dance Project, part of the MacMillan celebrations at the ROH. His remarkable intensity of focus was absolutely right for this intimate and hallucinatory take on Hamlet.
ENB’s Romeo and Juliet is the Nureyev version, providing testing challenges, with so many steps and details crammed in. There were particularly fine Juliets from Laurretta Summerscales (now with Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich – she will be missed) and Jurgita Dronina. Her Romeo was Aaron Robison, a recent joiner. It was hard to believe they hadn’t danced this together before, given their intense and deeply felt portrayal, making light of any technical hurdles.
Dronina was also a touching Giselle in English National Ballet’s Skeaping version. In the first act where Giselle feels suddenly ill, Dronina was strikingly convincing, abruptly pulling up short, clutching at the sudden pain in her chest. We felt for her. In the same production (different cast) Michaela DePrince was a commanding Myrtha with huge, powerful jumps.
The beauty and effortless quality of Vadim Muntagirov’s dancing was stunning. The potentially bland role of Amynta in Ashton’s Sylvia at the ROH was transformed into heartfelt longing by his sincerity, purity of execution and considerate partnering. It’s always a pleasure to see him on stage, but this was exceptional even by his standards.
Zenaida Yanowsky retired as principal of the Royal Ballet having served the company for more than twenty years. Her intelligence, command, ability to communicate and subtlety of interpretation will be much missed. At least she is returning in Elizabeth next year, and let’s hope we see more projects from her in the future.