Scottish Ballet work hard at being the nation’s company and showing ballet not as some Victorian relic but as contemporary, vibrant, accessible and above all close and relevant. It’s the company’s 50th Anniversary season and rather than start it, as you might expect, in Glasgow or Edinburgh, they opened in Scotland’s most northerly city, Inverness, with a special premiere and a full-on party for all. For £10 extra the entire Eden Court Theatre audience were invited to a huge after-show party with the company. My goodness we all felt special and had a terrific time, though after many cocktails goodness only knows what incoherent things I said to dancers, choreographers and the Inverness Provost!
To get us in the party mood the second part of the double bill was Kenneth MacMillan’s Elite Syncopations complete with its trad jazz orchestra on stage, zany rags and even more zany printed costumes. It appears loose and fun and allows the dancers to let their hair down and shimmy outrageously; but under the fun Elite is incredibly tightly choreographed and demands a company’s best in the lead roles or the bonhomie can fall flat. A pleasure then to report that Scottish produced one of the best versions I’ve seen. Two things particularly impressed, chief of which was the pace of the music – Brian Prentice (pianist and conductor) took it way faster than the Royal companies typically do and that single factor alone adds much extra pep and zing to it all. And the second was the Alaskan Rag of Marge Hendrick and Constant Vigier – it’s the tall girl, short boy, routine, and it was the funniest version I’ve ever seen. They each have great comic timing but their dancing together was honed to perfection. Choreographed slap-stick is too rarely done as well as you’d like, but Scottish seem to find the time to raise things to another level of polish – it was the same with their recent Cinderella step sisters’ routines. Special mention too for the Golden Hours rag with Constance Devernay and Andrew Peasgood as the hopelessly innocent lovers. Finally I have to mention Sarah Crompton’s insightful programme notes with terrific quotes from those originally involved and current dancers grappling with its nonchalant technicalities.
If Elite Syncopations (created in 1974) is nearly as old as Scottish Ballet, the opening ballet was the newest – Dextera by Sophie Laplane, a former company dancer. On the basis of some impressive small-scale works, Laplane became Choreographer in Residence two years ago (now strangely changed to the rather unwieldy title “Artist in Residence, Choreographer”) but this is her first full-on, main-stage commission. And it’s an absolute corker, fizzing with ideas for its 20 dancers. As an announcement of having arrived it’s about as good as it gets and, for those wondering, it’s a stronger and more rounded piece than the more quickly made Ballet Black work (Click!) unveiled earlier in March.
‘Dextera’ is a play on the word ‘dextrous’ – about having skill and skilled hands particularly and the piece is a hallelujah to creativity, manual and otherwise. The recurring theme is one of hands and what they can do. Neatly contemporary designs by Elin Steele has a red glove conspicuously lead the way, and later red grab handles materialise from some costumes enabling unusual manipulations. Sometimes these are beautiful, sometimes unceremoniously perfunctory (shades of Robbins’ The Concert) as dancers are carted around to set up odd tableaux. But over multiple scenes featuring ten Mozart excerpts (many well known) we see lots of slants on hands’ creativity from romantic, through elegiac, seductive and kick-arse high energy.
Overlaying the take on creativity is a quick-witted subverting of ballet roles and approach – no pointe shoes here and conventional partnering slides into more gender-fluid collaborations. The movement is a mix of ballet infused contemporary and what you might call quirkily playful Mats Ek, and, at times, beautiful road-crash poses with limbs at all angles and yet somehow harmonious. It’s an original voice. I saw Dextera twice but could see it many more times and keep finding new things in it.
At 46 minutes Laplane’s latest is ambitious and clearly much thought about. If I have any criticism it’s almost that there are too many ideas to absorb and some might be developed more. But my goodness how great it is to see a new choreographer with so many ideas rather than too few. Bravo to her and bravo to the company on reaching its 50th and putting creativity at the heart of its season with many new works yet to come, including a premiere of The Crucible to open the Edinburgh Festival and a new Christmas ballet – The Snow Queen.