Online (filmed at The Roundhouse)
December 23, 2020
Just before Christmas is usually the time for a small invited audience to gather at the English National Ballet School for the always convivial evening that is the Winter Showcase: a mix of demonstration of classwork, short repertory excerpts and, ever the most interesting part, some of the School’s best student choreography.
COVID-19 put a stop to that this year. But not to be defeated, ENBS Artistic Director Viviana Durante enlisted the services of Michael Nunn and William Trevitt to create an online edition filmed at The Roundhouse in London that saw the students in two new works, Of Space and Time, a classical presentation by Andrew McNicol and Hannah Cameron’s Extracts from contemporary classwork. Each included students from all three school years.
The big plus is that, this year, a much wider audience gets the chance to see the students showcase their talents. Gone, for those of us who were usually there in person, is the intimacy of the performance; and for the students, the thrill of performing for a live audience.
McNicol’s 27-mimute Of Space and Time is a socially distanced ballet in face masks, set to a collage of musical excerpts from Beethoven, Rossini, Weber, Glazunov and Tchaikovsky. The challenge of choreographing while observing COVID safety precautions involved creating in bubbles, rehearsing with masks and maintaining social distancing while working. All are very apparent in the choreography that mostly involves small groups. It is also very noticeable that, here and in Cameron’s Extracts from contemporary classwork, not only is there no partnering, but that the men and women never appear together.
From its opening with three women on each of two barres, the ballet builds through often dynamic, fast-paced choreography that shows the students’ skills off to the full. The men especially often get the chance to really fly. It is largely academic, but such is the cleverness with which the sections are woven together, and the always close relationship with the music, that it never feels so. There are a few occasions when control is lost a little, mostly on the coming down or out of a position or movement, and the unison is not always quite spot on, but the students give it their all and it flows very nicely indeed.
McNicol is on record as saying that he “wanted to capture something of the strangeness of this moment in time.” The piece as a whole certainly does that. The title is significant. Space and time are important elements in all dance. Space also refers to the social distancing. But I also can’t help seeing a connection with the vast emptiness of the Roundhouse. Andrew Ellis’ lighting that casts the surrounds into blackness only partially succeeds in hiding the fact there is no audience. The surrounding silence is deafening. The dancers seem to be in a great void, somehow suspended in time; ghosts of what once was, and that we all hope will be again soon.
The masks somehow add to that feeling. They anonymise the dancers terribly. Individuality feels severely reduced.
Cameron’s Extracts from contemporary classwork is a 17-minute pulling together of work following the autumn term’s contemporary assessments. Starting with Cunningham-influenced tilts and curves, it shifts through various styles and techniques to movement from improvisation and release.
Besides being a response to the dramatic space of the Roundhouse, the work is described as a celebration of the opportunity of collaboration and the shared experience of dancing together. While I have no doubt it achieved that for those performing, it struggled to connect with me watching.
Part of the issue could well be watching on a screen, detached in so many ways from the action and the individuals taking part, the black masks seeming to hide faces even more than white ones. The very class-like accompaniment of composer-musician Ronen Kozokaro didn’t help either, despite being played live.
It has undoubtedly been a difficult year for the School and its students. I suspect that 2021 will not be much better, if any. The film shows the dancers’ undoubted dedication and passion, and indeed their resilience as they remain committed to their art form and their dreams. They dance on as they must. We support them, as we must. The future may be more uncertain that it has ever been but we pray that those dreams will indeed be realised one day in the professional world.
English National Ballet School’s Winter Showcase is available on the School’s YouTube channel (and Facebook page) until Friday January 15, 2021.