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Moving On

UK School and Graduate Company Round-up

by David Mead

Summer 2011

There was plenty of interest in this year’s vocational school and graduate company shows, including some sparkling performances of well-known works as well as some promising student choreography.

Ballet Central (Central School of Ballet)

Some of the graduate companies tour widely during the second half of the academic year, usually visiting each venue for just one or two nights. It’s a great idea that not only gives the students a chance to perform regularly in front of paying audiences, but it gives them a valuable taste of life with a touring company and all the challenges that go with it, not least having to adapt to any number of different size stages.

The dancers of Ballet Central, the final year touring group of London’s Central School of Ballet, certainly found out how different venues could be. Chipping Norton is a pleasant theatre with an excellent reputation. It does have a postage stamp-size stage though. So much so that some pieces had to be scaled back and danced with smaller casts. Even then, some of the work looked decidedly cramped. It was no surprise that everyone looked so much more comfortable when they appeared at the Royal Opera House’s Linbury Studio Theatre in London.

As usual, the Ballet Central programme featured a range of dance styles, and combined existing works with special commissions, all by well-known choreographers. They may be about to graduate, but the dancers are still learning their craft. The steps were usually fine, but not surprisingly the emotion inherent in the music or choreography, especially when they are adult emotions, was sometimes lacking. That was certainly the case in both Christopher Hampson’s “Capriol Suite”, set to Peter Warlock’s score of the same name (although Zoe Arshamian and Dominic Harrison were most impressive in the main pas de deux) and the Blue Ball pas de deux from Christopher Gable’s “Cinderella”.

The “Cinderella” also highlighted another issue. Like most pas de deux from ballets where the dance is truly integral to the story, this one does not translate entirely satisfactorily when performed on its own. That’s a great shame because it is one of two exceptional duets from what is a wonderful ballet. Matters were not helped by Philip Feeney’s piano reduction of the score, which rather lost much of the tenderness of the orchestral version. Despite everything, Maria Grozova very much looked a name to note for the future. What a shame that Northern Ballet has ‘recycled’ the set, meaning the ballet will never again be danced in full.

Interpretation was not a problem in Christopher Bruce’s “Für Alina”, to Arvo Part’s well-known score. This most mature of works was the highlight of the tour. There was no explanation in the programme but, like the score, it seemed to focus on the feelings of people who have left home, and was full of glimpses of the hidden narratives of the nameless characters. The young cast carried it off wonderfully. Arshamian was again impressive.

Other classical ballet items included the pas de six from Helgi Tomasson’s “The Sleeping Beauty”, in which Grozova and Harrison again stood out; and excerpts from Nellie Happee’s “Simple Symphony” in which the petite Kozue Mikami showed some outstandingly crisp footwork. Her opening solo from the pas de trois was the classical highlight of the evening at the Linbury.

Besides “Für Alina”, contemporary dance was represented by Kenrick Sandy’s hip-hop inspired “Groove of the Metropolitan” and Darshan Singh Buller’s “Doubting Thomas”, while Philip Aiden’s jolly and upbeat Lindy-hop-based “Swing Time” gave everyone a chance to really let their hair down.

The Linbury performance finished with Christopher Marney’s “Scenes from a Wedding.” In many ways it played to the dancers’ talents and preferences, but it was all rather too obvious and unsubtle for me. Most impressive, though, is Philip Feeney’s wonderful score that includes many natural sounds such as the sea and birds. Part recorded but with the piano sections played live by Feeney himself it is full of the wonderful melodies for which he so well known. Despite my reservations, the audience loved it. And the cast certainly gave it their all, led by Arshamian as the Uncertain Bride, James Waddell as The Groom and Nicole Craddock as the Bride.

The Royal Ballet School

Most of the Linbury performances by The Royal Ballet School focused on the students of the Upper School. And what an enjoyable feast they produced in a challenging programme that was, rather appropriately, largely a celebration of English choreography.

One of the highlights was David Bintley’s “En Bateau”, made way back in 1988. Although set to Debussy’s “Petite Suite” and originally performed in front of a projection of Seurat’s “Une Baignade, Asnières” with its view of the Seine, boats and bathers (sadly not used here), in terms of steps and mood, the ballet is about as English as you can get. Ashton’s influence courses through it. Like many of his works it looks back to an idealised world. The opening threesome was delightfully innocent. Lily Howes in her sailor dress, escorted by Giorgio Garrett and Barny Sharatt, skipped happily round the stage as if playing by the river without a care in the world, before a second trio took us on the river with some clever use of canoe paddles. Most inventive, though, is the third movement, a pas de deux very cleanly danced by Naomi Seaton and Barnaby Rook Bishop that included swimming references galore.

As enjoyable as “En Bateau” was, it was the fireworks that followed that had everyone talking. Mexican Esteban Hernandez crackled and fizzed his way through the well-known pas de deux from “Le Corsaire” in a way that belied his age. His leaps were high yet wonderfully controlled; every one softly and solidly landed. His turns were fast and smooth with never a hint of a wobble, and then were the rock solid straight arm lifts. His partner, Yaoqian Shang, was not far behind, her fouettés being particularly impressive. To say these two looked promising would be a huge understatement; and they are still only in their first year.

Equally challenging, but in an altogether different way is Ashton’s austere “Monotones II”. It should look quite effortless, the dancers appearing weightless as if walking on the moon. That calls for a great deal of strength as well as nimbleness. Sadly there were a few too many wobbles for the effect to be maintained over the whole piece.

Kenneth MacMillan was represented by excerpts from his “Four Seasons”. Not only is it a pleasing, very classical ballet, but its large cast makes it perfect for such an occasion. It’s full of invention with some quite complex patterning. What stays in the memory is a particularly vicious section for the girls that requires them to bourrée on pointe for what seems like forever. That they all did so with such poise speaks volumes.

The second half honours, though, were taken by John Neumeier’s hauntingly beautiful “Spring and Fall”. Although non-narrative, it’s a ballet that has tension running through it, much of it drawn from Dvorak’s “Serenade in E Major”. The dancers extracted every ounce of drama possible, especially the impressive Claudia Dean who managed to danced with, yet simultaneously remain aloof from, her three male partners.

The evening was extra special for two students whose prize-winning works were danced alongside the more famous offerings. It was easy to see why second year Lachlan Monaghan’s “Memory of Touch” picked up the 2011 Ursula Moreton Choreographic Award. A dance for three couples it oozed elegance and a sadness that reflected perfectly Daniel Bernard Roumain’s “The Need to Follow”. First year student Marcelino Sambé is also clearly a dance-maker of promise, even if his “M’ câ cré sabi” was perhaps a little too complex. Several moves failed to flow as it seemed they should, and most of the extreme leg extensions looked somewhat out of place.

Elsewhere, Karla Doorbar particularly impressed with her line and use of the upper back in the pas de quatre from Act I of Ashton’s “Swan Lake”. And while Mariko Sasaki may only have been in the corps in a version of the “Waltz of the Flowers” from “The Nutcracker” by Peter Wright, she drew the eyes constantly with her neat footwork, pleasing line and a face that left no one in any doubt that she, like us, was enjoying the evening immensely. The evening concluded with John Cranko’s jewel of a ballet, “Opus 1”, set to music by Webern and depicting the creation of human life.

The high regard in which the School’s training is held around the world is reflected in the range of destinations many of the dancers on show will soon be heading for. Joining The Royal Ballet are Claudia Dean, Francesca Hayward and Tomas Mock; while off to Birmingham are Karla Doorbar, Emily Smith and Brandon Lawrence. Also joining UK companies are Sean Bates (Northern Ballet) and Sophie Allnatt (Scottish Ballet). Most others are headed to well-known European companies, while crossing the Atlantic are Fabio Lo Guidice (Joffrey Ballet), Jamie Kopit (American Ballet Theatre), Ilena Riveron (Boston Ballet 2) and Stafano Maggiolo (Tulsa Ballet).

English National Ballet School

The English National Ballet School this year took its annual performances to the Bloomsbury Theatre with the highlight undoubtedly Kenneth MacMillan’s wistful “Solitaire”. Subtitled “A kind of game for one”, it features an ever-present girl who meets and plays with friends, who can be taken as real or imaginary, before they vanish, always without saying goodbye.

The psychological undertones usually associated with the ballet, which admittedly are difficult to convey, were largely missing. Instead, and helped along enormously by Desmond Heeley’s original designs, the dancers imbued it with greater brightness and youthful charm that is usually the case. Although always left alone, Nicha Rodboon as the Solitaire Girl never seemed lonely. Matching her flower-decked summer hat, she brought a nice sense of lightness to the role, and at the end of each section was always left smiling, with happy memories of what had passed. The supporting also cast danced with an assurance. Miki Mizutani’s Polka Girl was especially perky and there was some impressive work from the boys, especially Vitor Duarte de Menezes in the pas de deux.

The performance opened with “Simple Symphony”, a new ballet by English National Ballet soloist Jenna Lee to Benjamin Britten’s youthful score. It is very much a group piece with the emphasis on dancing together. Lee made intelligent use of the music, crafted some pleasant patterns, and achieved the sometimes difficult balance of making the first year students look good while challenging them. My only wish was that a pas de deux that started so beautifully but ended rather abruptly could have been extended.

The School’s affiliation with Rambert Dance Company was recognised by “Unfold”, a new piece by Rambert Rehearsal Director Mikaela Polley, set to a score by John Metcalfe and danced by third year students. Much of the dance had a sense of suspension and use of weight that seemed particularly to suit the boys.

Other classical ballet styles were on show in excerpts from Act III of “Raymonda” and Act III of “Napoli”. Unsurprisingly, the dancers seemed rather more at home with the Petipa. Particularly impressive was Min Yi Kwok, who managed to extract every ounce of expression from the music.

The selections from “Napoli” were staged by Dianna Bjorn from The Royal Danish Ballet. Although she held masterclasses in preparation for the performances, the students’ lack of familiarity with the style showed. There was particularly little evidence of ballon, most jumps lacking in both height and lightness. The Tarantella, where the focus is rather more on speedy footwork played rather more to their abilities though, and was well danced with a genuine sense of the pleasure of dancing; a sense that transmitted itself to the audience who revelled in it too.

From next year the School’s final year cohort will get even more chance to gain valuable performance experience with the launch of ENB II. Working in partnership with English National Ballet, the idea is that the new company will take specially created adaptations of full-length classical works to family audiences across the country. The company will open with “My First Sleeping Beauty” at London’s Peacock Theatre in April 2012, followed by an eight week national tour. The performances will be complimented by classes for children aged 2½ years upwards in what is described as a “creative, imaginative and fun approach to learning ballet.” Funny, I thought good teachers made all classes like that.

Elmhurst School for Dance

Up in Birmingham, meanwhile, Elmhurst School for Dance, the associate school of Birmingham Royal Ballet, was putting on a week of shows at its own well-equipped studio theatre. Like The Royal Ballet School, Elmhurst caters for students from age 11 to 19, although all its performances involve students from right across the school.

John Cranko may have been South African, but her trained at The Royal Ballet School and his Gilbert and Sullivan inspired “Pineapple Poll” is English through and through. I freely admit that this rather silly story about flower-seller Poll, her lover Jasper, sailors, their wives and girlfriends, who along with Poll all hanker after the handsome Captain Belaye, and some odd goings-on about H.M.S. Hot Cross Bun, has never been one of my favourite ballets, but the final year students truly sparkled, bringing a freshness and vitality to the work that is rarely seen.

The whole cast was excellent. Jenna Carroll was sunny in the title role, showing a nice sense of fun along with some neat footwork. Star of the show though was Orazio Di Bella, who was nicely superior and full of himself as Captain Belaye. He was quite a heartthrob and knew it. It was easy to see why all the girls started swooning the minute he appeared. His dancing was pretty good too, with some excellent, quick footwork and impressive beats. And then there was the delightfully daffy pairing of Sophie Rance as Mrs Dimple (for once a teenager playing an older person actually worked rather well) and Lauren McCarron as her daughter Blanche.

Best of the rest was David Bintley’s “Four Scottish Dances” from “Flowers in the Forest”, which played nicely to the students’ talents and sense of fun. With everyone in kilted splendour, Olivia Holland and Lawrence Massie showed a nice sense of feeling for each other in the pas de deux, while Benjamin Roones and Orazio Di Bella were near perfect as the drunkards trying to pick up Scottish lassies Jenna Carroll and Abigail Prudames.

One of the features of the past two or three years at Elmhurst is how much the standard of dancing, and especially partnering, has improved amongst the boys. They look so much stronger these days, which in turn helps the technique. And that, plus opportunities for all the older dancers to dance occasionally with BRB must help their confidence too. It’s just a shame that the size of the School’s theatre and its licence conditions mean these shows cannot be opened up to a wider audience. And amazingly Birmingham does not have a suitable mid-scale theatre that could be used instead.

Most of the other pieces danced were choreographed by the School’s teachers. The only contemporary influenced work on show was Dennie Wilson’s “Mange-esque” danced by the year 11 students (16 year olds). The most interesting section featured arachnid-like movements that emphasised the limbs and the articulation in the elbows and knees, the spidery feeling being added to by the combination of red pointe shoes with largely black leotards and tights.

Elsewhere, the first years got to dance in Denise Lewin’s “Tanie Dzieciecy”, while Errol Pickford’s “Libertango” drew on boys from across the upper years, although the choreography and the dancing rather rounded out all the sharp edginess inherent in Piazolla’s wonderful music. Another all male piece was Lee Robinson’s “The Sailors”, this time danced by the boys in years 8 and 9 (13-14 years old). As in everything else he was in, Joseph Ngwana-Aumeer was most impressive, his face lighting up the stage. And boy can he jump and turn!

Aspirations was a pleasant and very feminine piece for the year 6.2 and 6.3 girls (18-19 years old), while “Cirque de la Danse” was a sort of combination work to Shostakovich’s Jazz Suite No.2 in which seven choreographers had a hand, including BRB dancers Kit Holder and Dusty Button. The best section by far was that to the “Danse Macabre”, in which Ririka Oishi shone. Finally a special mention for “Crafted”, a most appropriate title for what was indeed a well crafted piece by year 6.1 student Shuan Mendum that made intelligent use of the music and included some nice patterning. You wouldn’t have realised it was a student piece unless told.

Elmhurst artistic director Desmond Kelly will be leaving the School at the end of the 2011-12 academic year, although he will continue to act as an artistic adviser. Under his stewardship standards have improved immensely. Best of all is the focus on the English style; which is just as it should be.

Verve

There was plenty to see on the contemporary dance scene too. Best of all was undoubtedly Verve, the graduate company of the Northern School of Contemporary Dance. Again dancing at the Linbury the programme of four new works illustrated superbly the dancers’ fluidity, strength and theatricality.

A sense of nervousness pervades the opening of Thomas Noone’s Judder, but before long the mood changes as the work turns into a feast of dance that veers between the exhilarating and athletic, and the soft and lyrical, reflecting the changes in Jim Pinchen’s often muscular, driving urban-based music.

Charles Linehan’s deceptively simple looking Cascade was quite mesmerising. Apparently unconnected solos develop slowly into a series of fluid duets in which the dancers often manipulate each other, their bodies intertwining in unexpected ways. It all illuminated perfectly Richard Skelton’s composition of cyclical piano cycles. The partnering was excellent, as indeed it was all evening. Best was left to the last though, as one of the women was continuously and smoothly manoeuvred and turned by two of the men as if she was indeed water cascading over rocks.

Debora Johnson’s Unspoken, inspired by John Siddique’s poem “Atom”, provided another dose of superbly smooth contact work, before Ben Wright’s Forces changed the mood completely. Powerful and thought provoking, the very physical and visceral dance all takes place around a chandelier hung centre stage just a few feet off the floor, and that provided almost all the light save for a shaft from directly above, as if the sun was peeking into this dark underworld. There was great tension and sense of uncertainty. You could have cut the atmosphere with a knife. The dancers’ heavy breathing was clearly audible over Alan Stone’s soundtrack, despite its roaring thunderclaps, deafening explosions, loud cracks and the noise of what sounded like buildings collapsing. The marriage of movement, music and light really was quite an attack on the all the senses.

EDge

After many national and international performances, EDge, the graduate company of the London School of Contemporary Dance, returned home to The Place with a programme of four new works, including two from 2011 Place Prize finalists, Ben Duke and Eva Recacha, alongside a revival of Jeremy James’ signature piece, “My Big Pants”.

The dancers showed much promise. They performed with lots of energy in works that were packed with free or quirky movement. That may be where British contemporary dance is today, but it was a little disappointing that we did not see more of other aspects. Only in the Martin Forsberg’s intensely complex “Braid”, did they really get the chance to show their technique, and that they could dance with control and precision for sustained long period.

Opening proceedings was Recacha’s “P & J”. It opens with two dancers grappling and pushing each other back and forth like a couple of wrestlers. Recacha likes to use text in her work and sure enough there’s an awful lot of shouting as protagonists are egged on verbally by the rest of the cast. The brightly coloured costumes and upbeat Slavic sounding rhythms suggest a circus theme, albeit one where things have rather got out of hand. Only when reading the programme later did I discover it was supposed to be a group of puppets, having a wild backstage party.

Despite the jolly sounding title, “My Big Pants”, remounted by Sonja Pedro from the original cast, was entirely darker in mood and deeper in meaning. It’s a piece full of contrasts. There’s plenty of fast staccato movement, although the cast of four never lost the required accuracy and precision. As ever though, it was the stillnesses and slower moments that lingered in the memory, as when three of the cast walk slowly back from the audience, each mouthing words in a private conversation with their self.

The programme described Jorge Crecis’ “36” as a “dance sport” with unpredictable rules and shifting roles. The first half consisted largely of the cast throwing 36 half-filled plastic water bottles between themselves and shouting the numbers 1 to 11. But sport needs an objective, and if there was one here it was lost on me. It all quickly got as tedious as it sounds. The props were far more effective when put on the floor, as when placed around prone bodies as you would put candles around the dead, and later when lined up in six rows of six, creating a sort of grid in which rather more interesting dance took place.

Quite why many of today’s choreographers want dancers to speak or otherwise vocalise is beyond me. All too often it is little more than an addition to or substitute for music; a sort of aural wallpaper that far from adding to a piece only highlights the paucity of the choreography. It is also nothing new. There are times, though, when it all makes perfect sense, and in “Running Up the Down Escalator”, Ben Duke showed just how effective it can be.

Duke came to dance late, having originally trained as an actor. You can tell. He uses speech a lot in his work, but the big difference is that it always has purpose. It always exists as an equal with the movement. “Running Up the Down Escalator” is set around a chance meeting between a man and a beautiful woman at Angel tube station. “It had to be there”, we are told in an aside to the audience, “so I could tell the children I met her at the Angel station.” It’s about indecision and tangled web of alternative scenarios that may, or may not, have really happened, but that we can all understand and relate to. Structurally the work is a sort of contemporary dance version of one of those old Hollywood musicals, the dance and the text kept separate but informing each other and the overall narrative. And when the dance came, what gloriously juicy dance it was, filled to the brim with emotion and resonance.

Martin Forsberg’s “Braid” is full of complex, multilayered meaning as well as complex choreography that features ever-changing small groups in among the larger milieu. From the very opening moment that featured a stage light swinging above a darkened stage filled with assorted characters, it’s also intensely moody. What you don’t see and what happens in the shadows takes on as much importance as what happens in the light. The intrigue is added to by the odd costumes including someone in a fancy dress bear suit (minus the head); a stocky man in a flimsy, strappy dress; and a woman in a huge T-shirt; all individuals, but individuals making common cause. Forsberg lets you make up your own mind as to meaning, but unlike the opening three works in particular, also leaves you wanting more.

London School of Contemporary Dance Graduation Performance

The school season concluded with the graduation performances of the London Contemporary Dance School, again at The Place. A mix of student and professional choreography, these shows are usually a bit hit and miss, and this year was no different.

John Ross’ “Kettled” stood head and shoulders above the other student works on show on July 13. Drawing on first-hand experience of being kettled by the Police during a demonstration in London, it was full of tension. The often strong, athletic dance was packed with references to fighting and egging people on.

The most arresting image of the evening, though, came right at the start of Leila Bakhtali’s “Araneae Papilionoidea”, as a spotlight highlighted a man frozen against the back wall of the theatre, looking for all the world like a giant gecko, although given the title and the set, I think it was supposed to be a spider. He soon sprung to life though as he spent the rest of the work stalking and eventually capturing his prey. A special mention here for an innovative set comprising strips of stretchy material hanging from an overhead boom, which were often manipulated to form a web or traps that were integral to the choreography.

There was a nice image too at the beginning of Michael Kelland’s “There Never Was a Question”. A table, two chairs and a single florescent strip light; it all looked so promising. The scenario should have led to a work full of tension. But it fell totally flat, including the one moment of attempted humour. What we got was a police interrogation that was overwhelmingly text. When the occasional burst of dance it was impressive, but the less said about the acting the better.

The programme finished with two professional works. “I like Short Songs” was directed by Henrietta Hale and Ben Ash. I always worry when people avoid the term ‘choreographer’ and this was a perfect example of why. The work was a depressing mish-mash of ideas. One section featured four dancers sliding cymbals across the floor for no apparent reason. Another featured a girl repeatedly nodding her head violently so that her ponytail hit a cymbal. Is it any wonder I found myself constantly asking, “Why?” The closing “…among the whisperings, and the champagne, and the stars…” (part of a quotation from “The Great Gatsby”), by the always classy Martin Lawrence, came as wonderful relief.

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