British Ballet Charity Gala
featuring Ballet Black, Birmingham Royal Ballet, English National Ballet, New Adventures, Northern Ballet, Rambert2, Scottish Ballet and The Royal Ballet
London, Royal Albert Hall
3 June 2021
Streaming 18 June – 18 July 2021
5 Questions to Darcey Bussell about her upcoming British Ballet Charity Gala
Darcey Bussell’s fundraising gala had been timed to give a boost to Britain’s leading dance companies at the start of their return to live performances (we sincerely hope). Productions had been postponed or streamed during both lockdowns: by no means all the 65 dancers on stage in the Royal Albert Hall had been able, until now, to perform for a live audience. The money raised (£100,000 so far) is to be shared among the eight companies, with twenty per cent going to community dance projects and charities they have nominated.
The gala was very mixed evening, with pre-filmed mission statements from the community directors after each performance. Bussell and her co-host, Ore Oduba, compered the programme on screen, videoed from somewhere within the Albert Hall. They emerged at the end to thank the dancers, by then seated in ranks at the sides of the stage, beneath the Hall’s spectacular organ. Birmingham’s Royal Ballet Sinfonia musicians were spread out in the Proms arena, used by English National Ballet for its in-the-round productions.
The audience was similarly spread out among the rows of red plush seats in the stalls, carefully socially distanced. VIP guests, photographed at their arrival in the front entrance, were tucked away in boxes. Though large programme sheets provided cast lists and credits, no further information was given for the dance works, often baffling.
Scottish Ballet opened the evening with Dextera, created in 2019 for the company’s 50th anniversary by its resident choreographer, Sophie Laplane. She set out to entertain and disconcert by using Mozart’s familiar Gran Partita and Eine Kleine Nachtmusik for irreverent mock-baroque dancing, with the emphasis on ornate hand gestures – very reminiscent of Jiri Kylian’s works to baroque music. The orchestra joined in the fun with extra instruments for the samba-inspired finale.
Ballet Black followed with a solemn piece by Will Tuckett, Then or Now, to a poem-score by Adrienne Rich, American activist writer. Recorded voices lament the times we live in, while the dancers (the women on pointe) bore witness to Cira Robinson’s distress. It was hard to tell whether the choreography related to the spoken words and mournful solo violin, or quite how the chairs contributed to whatever message the piece was offering.
Northern Ballet was represented by two choreographers, Jonathan Watkins and Kenneth Tindall. Abigail Prudames and Joseph Taylor danced the passionate Act I duet from Watkins’s 1984, in which Julia overwhelms Winston at the start of their illicit affair. Only at the end did they become aware of the danger of being watched by Big Brother (from George Orwell’s dystopian novel). Tindall, now Northern Ballet’s resident choreographer, revived his first creation from ten years ago, Bitter Earth, for a trio of dancers – in the gala, Minju Kang, Kevin Poeung and Lorenzo Trossello. It’s an unpredictable intermingling of limbs to Max Richter’s mash-up of his own composition and Dinah Washington singing This Bitter Earth, in which she wonders ‘ What good is love?’
No such query bothers Cinderella and her Prince in the ballroom pas de deux from David Bintley’s Cinderella for Birmingham Royal Ballet. At last, a gala-worthy tiara and tutu for elegant Momoko Hirata, nobly partnered by César Morales; at last, a happy pas de deux and soaring music by Prokofiev, enthusiastically played by BRB’s so-far-underused orchestra.
The musicians came into their own after the interval, ‘accompanying’ six dancers from Matthew Bourne’s New Adventures in his 19th century ballet parody, Spitfire (from 1988). It’s a jeu d’esprit, usually performed to a tinny tape compilation and a lot of laughter. This must surely be the first time that Bourne’s male underwear models have danced to cheery chunks of Minkus and Glazunov played by a live orchestra in a gala performance. Alas, not enough giggles emanated from masked, spacially isolated spectators.
Shostakovich’s Piano Trio no.1 had already been recorded by English National Ballet’s Philharmonic orchestra for ENB’s contribution, Senseless Kindness, choreographed by Yuri Possokhov. Extracted from the company’s Reunion programme, streamed and at Sadler’s Wells, it is not a suitable gala number, as puzzling as its title. ENB is evidently saving the lollipops from its repertoire for its Southbank Solstice season (16-26 June 2021).
Rambert’s junior company was the only contemporary dance ensemble in the gala. (New Adventures belongs in a category entirely of its own). Eleven youngsters performed some sort of ritual to recorded gospel blues music for Sama, choreographed by Andrea Miller, a prolific creator who runs her own company in Brooklyn. Apparently, it concerns the elusive meanings of existence and the complex elements of our humanity accessed through our physical experience, amid other such online musings. The choreography features splayed feet, deep pliés, gymnastic feats and women balanced precariously on men’s shoulders and thighs. The audience applauded warmly.
The last contribution came from the Royal Ballet in Valentino Zucchetti’s Scherzo, previously seen in rehearsal during World Ballet Day in November 2020 and in the Royal Ballet Live video stream the same month. Set to the second movement of Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony, played by BRB’s orchestra, it poses technical challenges to which the young dancers rose with relish. Only ten minutes long, the ballet will be extended for main stage performances in the Royal Opera House in a future season.
Paradoxically, in admiring Zucchetti and the Royal Ballet cast, we are acclaiming elite dancers from a demanding art form. Ballet performed at this level is not for everyone, however inspiring inclusive outreach projects may be. Dance is good for mental and physical health, but top-rate professional performers need to have special physiques and abilities – and a well-funded support system. Theatres rely on performers and audiences: remember them when you watch the online streaming of the gala. Meanwhile, many thanks to Darcey Bussell, her team and sponsors for enabling a return to a live experience in the spectacular, anti-Covid-sanitised Royal Albert Hall.