Memories of 2021 – Dance in London
At least there are some memorable performances to recall from 2021: at the beginning of the year none of us had any idea when we might sit in a theatre and watch live dance again. Yes, there were streams, both free and paid for, but for me it’s being there in person in the theatre that produces the experiences that really stick in the memory. This is about the thrill of live performance where you can see the dancers sweat and hear them breathe. So here are those memorable moments from a difficult year.
When Covid restrictions began slowly to relax in spring, audiences fell hungrily on whatever theatres had to on offer. Those performances were like seeing the first daffodils emerge: they aren’t the most beautiful flower there is, but they were a promise that winter is over, and so we gazed on them all the more fondly.
The dance spring was a little late – venues began opening up in May. Until August companies were operating under very tight constraints, with dancers in bubbles and seating was socially distanced. It was an odd experience, but on the plus side, there were never any heads in the way when only alternate rows were occupied, and nobody coughed. Audiences still came.
English National Ballet produced the aptly named Reunion mixed bill to celebrate their return. This was an onstage live version of works made as films the previous year. Arielle Smith’s Jolly Folly was a perky, madcap hoot, with the men and women alike in black suits, bouncing around in a Chaplinesque manner through some jazzy Cuban takes on Tchaikovsky. Bizarrely there seemed to be a women’s boxing match briefly thrown in too. A tight and lively feel-good piece, from a choreographer new to many of us, just what we needed.
The Royal Ballet were also early out of the gate in May, with three mixed programmes over the next two months. Dances at a Gathering in June was the performance that resonated with me the most. Here was what we had all longed to do: just to spend time with a bunch of friends, greeting each other, passing the time of day. This Robbins work is something I had previously admired rather than loved: but this time the spell was truly cast. The final gesture here – the man in brown touches the earth – made absolute sense in a way that cannot otherwise be articulated. The more familiar you are with the dancers the better: there was a profound and reassuring sense of seeing old friends again.
ENB returned to the Festival Hall with Solstice, a mixed bill, effectively a greatest hits compilation. The excerpts included some shrewdly chosen crowd pleasers, colourful and cheerful. It concluded with the complete Playlist (Track 1, 2) made by William Forsythe for the men of the company in 2018, and they launch themselves into its tricky classical steps with very winning enthusiasm and skill. I do hope to see the expanded version next spring at Sadler’s which should give the women a chance to shine too.
Valentino Zucchetti managed to create a new work Anemoi, for the junior members of the Royal Ballet as part of their Beauty Mixed Programme in June and July. His cast kept constantly shifting as dancers had to isolate, but despite all the constraints he came up with an elegant and confidently-structured piece of classicism well fitted to the music which showed off the charm and freshness of its young cast.
On the same bill, Mats Ek’s Woman with Water was something of a curiosity. There’s a woman with a red dress, a table, a glass of water, and a man who seems to be in charge. At the time it was quirky and rather peculiar: was she a prisoner? Or in an asylum? Yet though it didn’t seem to register strongly at the time, both Mayara Magri and Natalia Osipova as the woman have stubbornly stuck in the memory as strong, embattled characters.
Aakash Odedra, who works in both Indian classical and contemporary dance came to Oxford in July with Rising a programme of solos. These had originally been created ten years ago, early in his career, and included work from himself, Russell Maliphant, Akram Khan and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. He has an amazing command of the different kathak and contemporary styles, and the stamina and virtuosity required to sustain eighty minutes of solo performance, which never flagged and remained riveting throughout.
Social distancing measures ended in theatres in August and it was time to get used to having people sitting in the seat next to you again. ENB’s evening length Creature from Akram Khan was much anticipated, having been due to premiere in April 2020. It had originally been described as a new take on Frankenstein, but ended up also including elements of Buchner’s Woyzeck. Sadly, it was memorable for all the wrong reasons, muddled and unclear, as if the extended period of creation had led to more ideas being stuffed in than the structure would bear. It deserves a mention for the truly tremendous Jeffrey Cirio in the title role, a performance of blazing conviction – desperate, vulnerable, tortured.
The Midnight Bell is a new work by Matthew Bourne, on a more modest scale than many of his previous productions. His inspiration was the novels of Patrick Hamilton, set in 1920s and 30s Soho, where his lonely cast of characters live in cheap boarding houses and seek solace in drink in the pub of the title, and in each other. His team have done a magnificent job in working together to conjure up the seedy, foggy, smoke infused atmosphere. Design is from Lez Brotherston, lighting by Paule Constable, sound design by Paul Groothuis and music from Terry Davis. The staging flows with seamless ingenuity from scene to scene, taking us smoothly from pub interior to shabby bedsit. Telling a number of interlinked stories could have been problematic but Bourne always makes the narrative threads clear.
Design of quite a different sort was the main and most memorable element of Dimitris Papaiouanou’s Transverse Orientation at Sadler’s Wells. I felt, after I came out, that if I tried to describe it to someone they might not believe me. It’s the weird dream you might have after eating a whole kilo of stilton. There’s a surreal stream of images. A huge life size model of a bull is manipulated by the cast so it seems to snort, paw the ground and toss its head: it’s startlingly convincing, even though you see the manipulation happening in front of you. There isn’t so much dancing per se, though he does create moving figures with the legs of one performer and the arms of another in a piece of visual trickery. He has a fascination with water; there’s a merman, and a woman turns into a human water fountain, drops spouting from her headdress. Ultimately the stage is ripped up to reveal a watery landscape lurking unsettlingly underneath. It’s not for everyone. I felt I had had a whole year’s worth of dance weirdness compressed into 100 minutes. It was never dull and didn’t drag at all.
Ballerina Alessandra Ferri is now in her late fifties but appears to have defied time. She appeared in L’Heure exquise in the Linbury, a major reworking by Béjart of Samuel Becket’s play Happy Days. She is buried within a mound of pointe shoes rather than earth: perhaps these are the remains of all the shoes she had ever danced in. The character seems to be sliding into confusion as her memory decays, but still resisting. There are exquisite touches as her movements, once free of the mound, recalls past roles. With her red umbrella she draws shapes on the stage just like Giselle with the sword. The artistry is still impeccable. She was also memorably fluid in a pas de deux created for her and Carlos Acosta (still a wonderful, sympathetic partner) in Chacona by Goyo Montero, part of a Birmingham Royal Ballet triple bill at Sadler’s Wells later the same month. Sadly, the rest of that programme was forgettable by comparison.
Mthuthuzeli November’s The Waiting Game for Ballet Black was also inspired indirectly by Samuel Beckett, an odd coincidence in the space of a few weeks. November takes the lead role, and a voiceover relates the mundane realities of his routine existence. A woman peers over a doorway: is he ever going to get through it to a different life? The door which shifts around the stage is the only scenery but it is used ingeniously. The rest of the group, costumed rather madly in suits made over as Pierrot style outfits, burst it through like something from his subconscious. Finally, he takes the plunge and joins them to re-emerge beaming in a sequined coat and there is a general knees-up to a stirring Etta James number. It was a much more good-natured and cheery piece than the subject matter might imply and was nicely tailored to its cast and put across with great verve. November is still quite early in his career as a choreographer and it will be interesting to see whatever he does next.
The Royal Ballet staged a run of Giselle this month, and after months of modestly scaled productions, here we were back at full strength with the company doing what it knows and is good at. Osipova added an individual touch which I found indelible. In her mad scene she very briefly sketched the mime for fondling a wedding veil (the same gestures that Lise makes in Act 3 of Fille where she begins to imagine her married future). I don’t recall anyone else doing this, and it had huge emotional impact. She was the most spectral of all the Act II Giselles, though there were many fine casts to enjoy. Best of all was to see the massed ranks of the women of the corps de ballet, all the twenty-four of them moving as one. This was the collective magic that we had missed so much.
On a different scale, Akram Khan was a lonely, forlorn figure in his solo Xenos at Sadler’s Wells. He is a humble soldier in the First World War, scrambling to uncoil telephone wires through mud. The set is a huge bank up which he scrambles: lit luridly by Michael Hulls it could be the side of a shell hole where the beleaguered Khan has taken cover. These may be his final performances. At 47 he is still astonishingly powerful, pulling out flurries of spins, his arms graphically carving the air. The moment that remains most haunting for me is early on in the work. Khan has been performing a kathak solo, interacting with two musicians. There are chairs, a table, cushions. But the lights flicker and fade and slowly all these symbols of civilisation are dragged up the blank and tipped into the abyss. That’s how life felt at times earlier this year.
The RB’s Ed Watson gave his farewell performances this year in the lead role in Wayne McGregor’s full length The Dante Project. The work itself was uneven: the music from Thomas Ades was thrilling, but McGregor’s choreography exists independently of it. But Watson was as commanding and compelling as ever, prowling the stage observing the sinners of Paradiso or the younger versions of himself and his first love Beatrice. We will miss his nervous energy and intensity on stage but it’s good to know he is now coaching for the company.
Yorke Dance Project revives some older works alongside new pieces from its Artistic Director Yolande Yorke-Edgell. Her mentor was Robert Cohan (who died aged 95 this year) and works by him were included in mixed programmes in the Linbury. The piece that sticks in the mind is poetic duet from Cohan’s Nympheas, dating from 1979. The RB’s Romany Padjak and Matthew Ball (guesting with the company) intertwined elegantly and sinuously. It did make you wonder about how many contemporary dance pieces that were once celebrated have just disappeared.
Matthew Bourne’s Nutcracker! bounced into Sadler’s Wells fizzing with energy like a hyperactive toddler after too much sugar. It’s the designs that really stick in the retina, the huge brightly coloured cake that forms the set of SweetieLand, the outrageous outfits of the King and Queen. Bourne really wants the audience to have a good time and sets about delivering it with wit and flair and a sure grasp of what really works in the theatre. I was particularly taken with the Knickerbocker Glory character with his pink smoking jacket and a Mr Whippy hairdo, a sleazy Terry Thomas cad with intentions that definitely aren’t honourable.
A final word on dancers who particularly caught the eye this year. Cira Robinson of Ballet Black was sinewy, authoritative and powerful in Tuckett’s Then or Now. Mayara Magri of the RB debuted as an icy, commanding Myrthe in Giselle. There was stiff competition in the roles of the star-crossed lovers in Romeo and Juliet, but I was most swept away by William Bracewell and Fumi Kaneko in their Covent Garden debut (see lead image. Ed). It was an inspired pairing. When he danced to her mandolin playing at the Capulet ball, his response to the music and the situation seemed utterly natural and unforced as if he was inventing the steps on the spot. She seemed to be blown across the stage by some faint, unseen breeze. This partnership should be cherished.
Let’s all hope that there will be many performances to remember in 2022.