Memories of 2020 – Dance in London
It all started promisingly. January was busy. English National Ballet celebrated their 70th birthday in great style at the Coliseum, giving us not the usual gala fare but a thoughtfully curated selection of significant works from their history, including more recent commissions from Akram Khan, Annabelle Lopez Ochoa and William Forsythe. It showed off the depth of talent in the company and their run continued with some rollicking performances of Le Corsaire. The Royal Ballet were busy too with their Coppélia supplying some delightful Swanildas in Mayara Magri and Yasmin Naghdi; and in Onegin it was time to say goodbye to Thiago Soares in a finely nuanced performance in the title role. Matthew Bourne’s The Red Shoes entertained audiences at Sadler’s. There was so much to choose from, it was hard to cram it all in. How strange it is to write that now.
February brought more memorable dance. Russell Maliphant presented Maliphantworks3 at the tiny, intimate Coronet where he and his wife Dana Fouras eloquently showed us the deep mutual understanding coming from decades of life together. Another offering on a modest scale came from Acosta Danza in the Linbury, with a particularly striking solo from the elegant Zeleidy Crespo, whose limbs go on forever. By contrast Sir Peter Wright’s production of Swan Lake for Birmingham Royal Ballet was a grand and glittering affair, well worth the journey. It was easy to understand Lachlan Monahan’s attraction to Miki Mitzutani’s delicate and vulnerable Odette. The swans emerging from under the dry ice (in Act IV) is a stunning theatrical moment.
By the beginning of March there was already unease about the virus, but there was still so much to tempt you out. Crystal Pite’s Revisor at Sadler’s was an intelligent, idiosyncratic deconstruction of The Government Inspector, sour, funny and performed with great precision by her company Kidd Pivot. The Royal Ballet gave us a double bill of Dances at a Gathering and Cathy Marston’s new The Cellist. Lauren Cuthbertson’s portrayal of Jaqueline du Pré may be one of the most emotionally committed performances she has ever given: Marcelino Sambé was brilliant as her cello, the spirit of music. Not everything was memorable in a good way though. There was a baffling misfire in the form of Return to Heaven from the usually reliable Mark Bruce at Wilton’s. Not even the talents of Dane Hurst and Eleanor Duval could make the material coherent.
Funding for Richard Alston Dance Company has ceased after twenty-five years. The farewell performances at Sadler’s Wells were emotional, but they went out on a high with creativity undimmed. His lucid, rigorous, musical and finely crafted work will be much missed.
There was much to look forward to. The opening of the much anticipated Creature, a new Akram Khan full length piece for English National Ballet was a couple of weeks away. Swan Lake was returning to Covent Garden, with some keenly awaited debuts in the leading roles. Carlos Acosta had just taken over as Artistic Director at BRB and was to bring a triple bill of new commissions to Sadler’s Wells in June. There were visiting companies lined up for spring and summer who we were eager to see again – Pam Tanowitz at the Barbican, Nederlands Dance Theatre in a 60th anniversary bill at Sadler’s Wells. And also, at the Wells a programme of events to celebrate 20 years of the Akram Khan Company was planned for September.
And then there was lockdown and everything stopped.
We had no idea of how events would play out. Surely this was going to be just for a couple of months? ENB moved its premiere of Khan’s Creature to November. We’d be back to normal by then surely? It took months to realise just how deep and lengthy the impact would be. Hopes for a return to live performance were to be raised and dashed, and raised and dashed again.
In June the Royal Ballet tested the water with some streamed concerts performed from the Covent Garden stage without an audience. It was a tantalising glimpse of a live show. Vadim Muntagirov performed Ashton’s Dance of the Blessed Spirits with the impeccable style and grace we have come to expect but with heartfelt emotion too. It wasn’t like being there but it was a small and precious reminder.
The resourcefulness of performers worldwide gave us a new genre, the short dance smartphone film, where most of the ingenuity was in the editing: the bathtub Swan Lake did make me smile. Through the spring and summer ballet and dance companies around the world had been releasing a mass of recordings online, often for free. The world came to your living room. It was generous and there were unexpected discoveries. But the live experience is key: I need to be in the same space as the dancers, to feel the air vibrate, and to register that prickle down the neck, the thrill of the collective shared experience.
It was wonderful to be part of an audience again for Birmingham Royal Ballets triple bill at Sadler’s Wells in October. The audience were necessarily reduced in numbers and masked, but it was great to feel that communal anticipation as the curtain rose. The standout work was William Tuckett’s Lazuli Sky, a commission made under Covid constraints with ingenious use of projections and huge folding skirts for the performers.
Two live gala style programmes with a socially distanced audience were scheduled by the Royal Ballet. The first was packed with familiar treats including Wheeldon’s Within the Golden Hour, but a pas de deux, In Our Wishes, from a Cathy Marston work new to the company, made a particularly striking impression. Fumi Kaneko and Reece Clark made their anguish palpable. The second live run was scuppered by a return to lockdown, though it was streamed.
A further easing made Nutcrackers, so vital to company finances, appear possible in December. The Royal’s version was the only one that finally made it to the stage briefly in London. It had been tactfully and thoughtfully modified to minimise contact between performers and the dancers seized on it with real hunger. Nunez and Muntagirov were gracious and polished as the Sugar Plum and her Prince. But the real emotional impact came in the final scene, where Hans-Peter, restored to human form returns to his uncle Drosselmeyer. They hug. My eyes misted up. Hugs have been sorely lacking this year and we long for a time when we can hug again.