English National Ballet’s Emerging Dancer celebrated its tenth anniversary with the closest – and least predictable – contest for some while. The dancers in previous iterations have included some that had already well-and-truly “emerged” and usually (though by no means always) they were shoe-ins to win. But, this year the six competitors were evenly matched and largely unknown to all but the keenest follower of ENB.
Emerging Dancer is only closed to dancers at Principal level and so it is unusual (but appropriate, in my view) that this year’s six shortlisted contestants are all still on the very first rung of the ENB dance hierarchy, as artists, with two of the young men, Rentaro Nakaaki and Shale Wagman, in their first year.
The 2019 winner is London-born Julia Conway and her success was well deserved. Dancing with Nakaaki in the classical section, they performed the rip-roaring pas de deux from Flames of Paris, which has become ubiquitous gala fare (twice seen at the Coliseum in recent weeks). Nakaaki soared high in the big jumps; and Conway accomplished the challenging terre-a-terre footwork of the female variation (to the familiar music of Soldier, Soldier, Won’t You Marry Me…) with controlled balance and intrinsic musicality. Plaudits are due to their coaches, Shiori Kase (the winner of Emerging Dancer, in 2011, and now a Principal dancer) and Pedro Lapetra, for guiding these young dancers through this complex test.
Alice Bellini and Shale Wagman took on a pas de deux that is now only seen in gala celebrations, Victor Gsovsky’s Grand Pas Classique, and they performed it with charm and a great deal of precision (although not completely so). Emilia Cadorin and Rhys Antoni Yeomans danced the pas de deux from Coppélia, bringing an appropriate youthful zest to these out-of-context characters (Swanhilda and Franz). Yeomans exhibited strength in his secure partnering and Cadorin has an abundance of charisma and an uplifting smile. There was, however, some signs of nervousness.
Generally, the dancers were not much helped by their choreographers in the contemporary solos. A lack of energy seemed pervasive and, in some cases, also a lack of appreciable movement and stage utilisation: too many dancers, for too long, occupied limited space with little more than gestural choreography. Overall, I was disappointed (but also acknowledging that these works were given freely and – one supposes – with little time to prepare).
Wagman’s Peculiar Mind (choreographed by Sofie Vervaecke) made full use of his ultra flexible spine and upper body. Sebastian Kloborg wittily deconstructed La Sylphide in his Clan B for Bellini, but despite humorous moments it didn’t do enough to showcase her diverse talents. Fabian Reimair both choreographed and composed BAM! for Cadorin, who began in silhouette before being starkly lit in her tight, emerald green leotard. Cadorin’s performance was so different in terms of confidence that – aligned to the much-altered look – she could have been another dancer from the one portraying the young Swanhilda. Nuno Campos made Own for Nakaaki, which helped enhance the strength of attitude that this young Japanese dancer conveys. And, Conway performed a challenging routine to Miguel Altunaga’s Untitled Code, opening in silent stillness, punctuated by quick-fire poses, before finally asserting personality and movement.
One contestant chose a different path, as Yeomans performed an extract from William Forsythe’s In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated (and kudos to Forsythe for allowing the opportunity). Yeomans did well and I hope he impressed his boss by showing that he can accomplish this difficult choreography in a piece embedded in the ENB repertoire. Clever! Yeomans is used to competitions on this stage, since – as winner of the classical ballet section – he was a finalist in BBC Young Dancer 2017, losing out to Nafisah Baba. Yeomans did, however, win the ENB People’s Choice Award, which is voted for by audience members. Eireen Evrard was a popular winner of the Corps de Ballet Award, selected by her peers.
All in all, each of the dancers had significant highlights and also things that were less impressive. In addition to the many coaches from the higher echelons of the company (too many to mention), one must credit ENB Music Director, Gavin Sutherland for his varied orchestrations and for conducting the ENB Philharmonic through this wide-ranging repertoire. Laurent Liotardo and Graham Tilley made charming and effective films to introduce the contestants; and last year’s Emerging Dancer, Daniel McCormick danced an effervescent interpretation of the Act III pas de deux from Don Quixote with Francesca Velicu.
For those who did not win, one important and salutary fact to recall is that a certain Vadim Muntagirov trod the boards in this contest, back in 2011, and he did not win (he lost out to Kase). In fact he was never ENB’s Emerging Dancer. Just look at him, now!