The month of July is when graduates of performing arts schools would normally be giving their end-of-year performances, eager to show their progress. They and fellow students have been deprived of their chance to shine, thanks to lockdown disrupting their training. English National Ballet School has been enterprising in finding a creative way to capture their achievements on video, putting the edited results on line as a delightful virtual experience.
Three choreographers were commissioned to work with ENBS students in lockdown on different continents. Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, Didy Veldman and Andrew McNicol had no opportunity to get to know the students from all three years of the school, aged between 16 and 19. They had to communicate across four different time zones as everyone involved came to terms with video technology. The choreographers commented during the chat at the end of the Summer Performance compilation that their young cast members had to learn to be set, costume and lighting designers, choosing where and how to make their contributions.
Their short videos were assembled by the choreographers, with the post-production expertise of the BalletBoyz, into three works that give the illusion of multi-cast ensembles. The first, Memorias del Dorado, by Lopez Ochoa, uses the youngest students in a dream-like piece set in a Japanese house. A young man (the students aren’t named) wearing traditional clothing, leafs through an illustrated book of Inca treasures. His memories, though, are of his fellow dancers, whose images appear on the walls and tatami mats on the floor, confined within a single dwelling.
The young women curve their arms around their torsos, outlining their faces, fluttering their hands; the men are out of doors, wielding books or chairs. Expressionless, all appear remote, conjured up by Max Richter’s meditative music. At the end, they bid the despondent boy farewell in a mosaic of waving limbs.
Didy Veldman’s upbeat piece for 39 dancers from the second year is next, starting with the easy-listening jazz of Joe Loss’s band. Not So Strictly also opens with a lone young man, this time in an urban setting. More and more figures occupy the screen, repeated in multiple frames. Miraculously, numbers of dancers in very different contexts execute much the same moves at the same time – a corps de ballet of individuals. They’re not performing classical ballet technique but Veldman’s contemporary dance combinations, sometimes edited in counterpoint with each other.
The soundtrack switches to Khachaturian’s catchy waltz and dancers appear to be duetting with their twin selves in mirrored split screens. The mood becomes exhilarating as towels and garments are tossed into the air and the waltz compels synchronised performers to stretch up their legs as high as they can. Touchingly, they persuade family members to join them as ballroom partners – parents, siblings, dogs, a cat – before the kaleidoscopic finale. Who would have thought that enforced quarantine could be so joyous?
Andrew McNicol’s Gradus, to a plaintive score by Peter Gregson, is the most elaborate of the three works. He has given third year students a series of rhythmical enchaînements to perform in open spaces outdoors. They take turns at speaking monologues about their feelings for dance and their concerns and hopes for the future. One young man pins himself against brick walls as though waiting to break free. Girls’ faces form a ghostly choir as one of them expresses her mixed emotions. A sequence of dismembered limbs and entwined bodies is a rather creepy visualisation of another young woman’s ponderings.
Best of all is the distanced duet between Hannah Nash and Gouta Seki, who are named in the trailer for the Summer Performance video. Near the conclusion of Gradus, their separate screens appear to let them reach out and touch each other through clever choreography and editing. They vanish into cyberspace, to be replaced by a succession of dancing portraits of ENBS graduates, some of them glimpsed poignantly for only a moment.
McNicol’s choice of title could refer to their graduation ceremony, unseen later in the video apart from an address by Alessandra Ferri. She promises the students that they will create a future for themselves and for dance. The Virtual Summer Performance is an assurance that creativity is indeed flourishing through the ingenious use of cameras and editing technology. Choreographers and performers are providing us with amazing records of what they can achieve in the strangest of times.