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English National Ballet

'Strictly Gershwin'

by David Mead

June 9, 2011 -- Royal Albert Hall, London, UK

The Royal Albert Hall with its wide open acres and audience all around is not the best place for dance. Sometimes it works, as in Deane’s magical lake scenes in Swan Lake, but more often than not the problems of filling the vast acres of the stage and having to work to multiple fronts are hugely problematic. And that’s without there being issues with the nature of the work itself.

The first half of the “Strictly Gershwin” is called “Gershwin on Broadway”, the second “Gershwin in Hollywood”, but Deane falls way short of recreating either. In fact, and as the title implies, the show has far more connection with television light entertainment. It is bright and breezy. The humour might be missing, but there is certainly lots of glitter and colour. And, just like those Saturday night TV shows, don’t worry if you don’t like ballet, ballroom, cabaret or tap, or the singer, you only have to wait five minutes for something else to come along.

The best part of the show is the music. It is indeed Gershwin all the way, played with great gusto by the English National Ballet Orchestra, who were having a ball all of their own. But why was the sound amped up so much? Singer Maria Friedman, star of many West End musicals, suffered too. Anyone who has seen her in the West End will know she’s a great performer, but her voice sometimes sounded so distorted it was difficult to make out the words. At the front of the band was livewire conductor Gareth Valentine who, in between bouncing around as if on one of those mini-trampolines, had a few dance moves of his own. Special mention too, for guest pianist Jonathan Scott for a vivid playing of “Rhapsody in Blue”.

The audience favourites among the dancers were undoubtedly the infectious tap duo of Douglas Mills and Paul Robinson, one of who even got to dance on top of a grand piano. It was easy to see why. Not only do they have some clever choreography, given they are listed as “additional choreographers” I assume this was put together by themselves, but like Valentine they oozed personality. They connected with the audience. In comparison the rest of the show was terribly bland and uninspiring.

The show includes several numbers where Deane fills the floor with action. “An American in Paris”, for example, includes nuns, onion sellers, a cycling postman on a rather nifty bright red bike, showgirls from the Moulin Rouge and nannies with prams, albeit completely empty prams. Budget cuts perhaps? Largely submerged somewhere in all this were guests Tamara Rojo and Guillaume Côté in the Lesley Caron and Fred Astaire roles. A later section also had some very ordinary drum majorettes and rollerbladers.

Busy choreography is not always good choreography, though. Too often in the show it lacks coherence with too many people doing too many different things facing too many different directions. And then there was what seemed like endless running around as the dancers regrouped in yet another formation. At times it looked more like an exercise in crowd control.

The ballet in particular has very little in the way of demanding steps. All too often the choreography looked uncomfortable alongside the Gershwin, especially in the jazzier numbers. Maybe Deane thought it would get lost in the space, but there is almost no quick footwork and, rather more surprisingly, almost no big jumps. Ballroom dancers Carmen and Bryan Watson may not have been exactly full of pizzazz but at least they had a few nifty moves to show off.

Act II has a few more cracks of light that occasionally brightened up the evening. “Rhapsody in Blue” opened with much promise, the corps in stunning two-tone blue tutus, but then only occasionally sparked into life despite the best efforts of Rojo and Côté, the former not being helped by someone being so enthusiastic with the dry ice during her big entrance that they all but hid her legs. The most romantic and meltingly beautiful dance of the evening, though, came from Daria Klimentova and Friedemann Vogel in “Summertime”. At last it seemed like the music meant something.

In so many ways “Strictly Gershwin” is ballet for the West End musical audience. And for that audience it probably works. But, and despite the best efforts of the dancers, my mind couldn’t help wandering back occasionally to Balanchine’s “Who Cares?” or Astaire and Rogers. They may be on the programme cover, but Fred and Ginger this certainly ain’t.

"Strictly Gershwin" continues in the round at the Royal Albert Hall to June 19. In the autumn it can been seen in regular theatres at Oxford, Manchester, Southampton, Cardiff, Liverpool and Milton Keynes, and in January 2012 at the London Coliseum. See http://www.ballet.org.uk/what-s-on/whats-on for details of this and other forthcoming English National Ballet performances.

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