For each of the past six years running, National Youth Dance Company has recruited several dozen young dancers from around the UK (typically aged between 16 and 19) and paired them with Sadler’s Wells Associate Artists for workshops designed to test and sculpt their talents. The annual venture culminates in a bespoke new production directed by a guest artistic director and toured around the country. This year sees Israeli dancemaker Sharon Eyal at the helm of NYDC, directing a 41-strong troupe in an hour-long contemporary piece called Used To Be Blonde. The title is oblique, but the choreography is an explicit punch of intensity, fusing vigour and angularity with a velvety slinkiness.
A video introducing the show hints at the breadth of the 2018 company and the range of dance backgrounds they bring, from ballet and modern to breaking and South Indian. Amid the current crop are dancers who’ve been training since early childhood and others with just a few years of experience behind them. The fruits of this diversity are visible throughout the performance as individuals enhance Eyal’s choreography with their particular strengths: one’s extension becomes an energetic karate kick, another’s twist a snaking body roll. At the same time, there’s a slight imbalance of capability across the cast, dulling the overall sharpness: some dancers operate at a visibly higher level in terms of control, linearity and articulation.
In any case, the force by numbers is an asset in itself. The curtain rises to reveal an arresting tableau – the entire ensemble swaying in the dark, ready to pounce – and from here they swarm from formation to formation, a tight, steadfast mass of inky unitards and crimson lips. A distinct pattern of phrasing recurs throughout the work: an individual is plucked out to cavort on their own while the others form a chugging background chorus, rocking in deep pliés to the twitchy throb of Ori Lichtik’s score. Seventeen-year-old Alex Thirkle is frequently singled out, his background in voguing put to excellent use with rippling arms and crisp, stylised poses.
Used To Be Blonde’s form and vibe recall Eyal’s enigmatic Bill, recently performed by Ballet British Columbia, with its jolting swerves and idiosyncratic solos. At times a creaturely aesthetic takes centre stage, the dancers hunkering down in beastly contortions and serving up serpentine undulations, feline strutting, fluttery, crepuscular hands. Complementing this is a prominent android effect, the cast vibrating with a low-level mechanical buzz borne out in rotating torsos and swinging limbs. Eyal coaxes a high level of energy out of her dancers, and a spark of mischief that renders their weirder antics – wiggling hips, contorted faces – droll rather than detached. They also deliver on the gender-bending sensuality of her choreography, particularly the men, who strut, prance and roll their shoulders with surprising conviction.
The piece retraces its own moves over and over again, mostly to hypnotic effect, though it can feel repetitive at times. All the dance is performed upright or crouching; there are no leaps or floorwork, no partnerwork (or really any touching at all). And there’s only about a minute where anyone leaves the stage. Still, it’s an ambitious undertaking in its scale and unusual movement vocabulary, and an engaging one at that. NYDC could have opted for a straightforward contemporary number with conventional contractions and reaches, no questions asked, and indeed I’ve seen the company take this very route, to applause, with 2015’s Frame[d] by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. But the challenging bent of Used To Be Blonde, while riskier and not without its faults, is ultimately more rewarding, and these young dancers are undoubtedly better for it.