A year in dance: 2016 in review

SeeingDance editor David Mead takes a very personal glance back at the dance he saw in 2016.

2016 was a year that started with a bang, and Akram Khan’s outstanding Until the Lions, which quite rightly has been nominated time and again for the forthcoming National Dance Awards. Khan’s name was also to the fore in the autumn. His new Giselle for English National Ballet was promoted incredibly heavily. For once a work lived up to all expectations. Agreed, the story and the male characters get a little lost in Act I, but it is full of the powerful ensemble choreography that Khan is so good at. Act II is quite simply magnificent, with the scariest Wilis you can imagine. If it doesn’t pick up award after award next time around, I’ll be amazed.

Ching-ying Chien in Akram Khan's Until the LionsPhoto Jean Louis Fernandez
Chien Ching-ying in Akram Khan’s Until the Lions
Photo Jean Louis Fernandez

ENB looked incredibly good elsewhere too, and how nice to see a British classical ballet company not afraid to try a few contemporary things, and get them so, so right. Good things are happening in Leeds too, where Northern Ballet impressed with Cathy Marston’s excellent contemporary ballet Jane Eyre, for once a choreographer managing to squeeze in most of the book without matters feeling rushed or confused. I didn’t see Jonathan Watkins’ 1984, but I hear that was very good too. David Nixon is clearly still doing a great job up in Leeds.

In Birmingham, I thoroughly enjoyed Birmingham Royal Ballet’s telling of John Cranko’s Taming of the Shrew. On their Shakespeare triple bill, Jessica Lang’s Wink again showed what a fine choreographer she is. I think Lang is the only outside choreographer David Bintley has ever invited back to make a second work. You can see why. Bintley’s own The Tempest has its moments, and some fabulous designs, but overall was a bit of disappointment after all the build-up. Right now, I must admit to feeling a little concerned for BRB. When compared to what’s happening elsewhere, and as good as the company productions of the classic full-lengths are, I can’t help feeling the repertory has become a little ‘safe’ and lost spark. I know Bintley doesn’t want to simply go out and bring in a work by Kylian or a Forsythe whoever. He feels that’s not what BRB is about, but how about a good upcoming young choreographer – and they are about. Maybe it’s felt too much of a risk (we’re back to ‘safe’ again). It would at least be nice to see some of the Balanchine works they used to dance so gloriously back, even if it’s just the popular ones rather than the heavy ‘black and white’ pieces.

Brandon Lawrence in WinkPhoto Andrew Ross
Brandon Lawrence in Wink
Photo Andrew Ross

Among the smaller ensembles, I continue to be very much taken by Ballet Theatre UK. I will admit going along to their Romeo and Juliet a little concerned about just how the story would look on a small stage, told with just 14 dancers, still with that powerful Prokofiev score. Wrong, wrong, wrong! It was a delight from start to finish and a great example of how small-scale productions of big stories can work. Top marks too for Yorke Dance Project, and especially their revival of Kenneth MacMillan’s sideways (very sideways) take on Hamlet, Sea of Troubles. It is confusing narratively when the dancers start switching characters, but it was excellently done.

Erin McNeill as Juliet and Oliver Cooper as Romeo in Ballet Theatre UK's Romeo and JulietPhoto Daniel Hope
Erin McNeill as Juliet and Oliver Cooper as Romeo in Ballet Theatre UK’s Romeo and Juliet
Photo Daniel Hope

The ballet I caught in Europe pretty much all impressed. A great four days was had at Stuttgart Ballet’s festival celebrating Reid Anderson’s 20 years as director. The best evening was a William Forsythe (The Second Detail), Marco Goecke (Lucid Dream) and Uwe Scholz (Seventh Symphony) triple bill. Seventh Symphony is a classical delight and so desperately musical it’s scary. Maybe it’s why I’m not a promoter, but this was yet another ballet I find abroad that I’m sure would be enjoyed by audiences at home. Equally memorable, though, was Demis Volpe’s Salome, seen a month earlier. It’s brilliantly staged, and that pas de deux for Salome and John to Baptist’s head leaves very little to the imagination. Definitely not a ballet for the kiddies!

Salome by Demis Volpe Elisa Badenes (Salome), Roman Novitzky (Herodes) and artists of Stuttgart BalletPhoto Stuttgart Ballet
Salome by Demis Volpe
Elisa Badenes (Salome), Roman Novitzky (Herodes) and artists of Stuttgart Ballet
Photo Stuttgart Ballet

Finally, abroad, what a great way to round out the year Richard Wherlock’s excellent Robin Hood for Ballett Basel turned out to be. A well-known title, a retelling that makes sense, and a new ballet that actually has tunes! Just what a contemporary story ballet should be, and what should be being done at home.

Turning to the contemporary scene, a week in Edinburgh during the International Festival and Festival Fringe had its memorable moments in more ways than one. Hitting the Royal Infirmary at 3am with a nasty case of shingles on my face is not something I will forget. On stage it was an up and down few days. The two outstanding highlights were Janis Claxton’s sublime POP-UP Duets: Fragments of Love, danced in the glorious sunlit galleries of the National Museum of Scotland; and Familie Floz’s Teatro Delusio, which features the backstage goings on at an opera/ballet company. Special mentions too for The Silence of Roaring (禮祭) by Hsu Chen-wei (許程崴) from Taiwan, and Smother by 201 Dance Company from London. At the main festival I adored What the Toad Knew by Compagnie du Hanneton and James Thierée with its other-worldly set, although I still have no idea what that amphibian did know. Elsewhere, there were too many disappointments and works that simply struggled to engage.

Janis Claxton's POP-UP Duets (Fragments of Love) at the National Museum of Scotland(pictured Carlos J Martinez and Christina Liddell) Photo Roy Campbell-Moore
Janis Claxton’s POP-UP Duets (Fragments of Love) at the National Museum of Scotland
(pictured Carlos J Martinez and Christina Liddell)
Photo Roy Campbell-Moore

A better all-round experience was had in May at the International Dance Festival Birmingham, without doubt the best yet. I loved the atmosphere of the Municipal Bank Building, used as the festival hub, but sadly now lost as a performance space, and the buzz of Centenary Square on a Saturday afternoon with outdoor performances rattling along one after the other. On the big stage, Ballet BC were simply outstanding. Hopefully it will be the first visit of many to British shores.

Having struggled past Ailey who, while undoubtedly very good at what they do, have a lot of works that look and feel the same, the autumn featured one good evening after another, with more than a few surprises. Fifty minutes watching a naked Belgian cavorting around the stage doesn’t sound even remotely promising. But I absolutely loved Aneckxander by Alexander Vantournhout and Bauke Lievens; totally engaging from start to finish, thanks in part to Vantournhout’s great personality. Another surprise was Under Siege (十面埋伏) by Yang Liping (杨丽萍), seen at Sadler’s Wells. Chinese contemporary dance tends to be safe and, quite frankly, years behind the times. This was a quite gorgeous and engrossing meeting of contemporary and classical Chinese dance with a dash of Peking Opera – and at over two hours without interval it needed to be. What a marvellous set too, by Tim Yip. Top marks for Sadler’s Wells, by the way, for a second more interesting Out of Asia season.

He Shang as Xiang Yu (behind) and Gong Zhonghui as Liu Bang in Under Siege by Yang LipingPhoto Ding Yi-jie
He Shang as Xiang Yu (behind) and Gong Zhonghui as Liu Bang in Under Siege by Yang Liping
Photo Ding Yi-jie

One of the great things about everything mentioned so far was being able to see. I like murky, gloomy, atmospheric lighting, but some designers are now taking it to ridiculous extremes. Perhaps they should sit towards the back of the theatre now and again. They might then realise just how little can sometimes be seen. Peering into the blackness was certainly a problem with Cloud Gate 2 (much more so than I remember with the same works when seen previously in Taipei), but how good it was to see the company in London. I know comments about the rep were mixed, but everyone wanted to see them back sometime in the future.

Back in the Midlands, Rosie Kay struck gold again with her new Motel, a tale of the dreams and desires of a couple of people stuck in a dreary hotel room. I also enjoyed the visit to Birmingham of the always excellent National Dance Company of Wales; and of 2Faced Dance from Hereford, an all-male company with a female artistic director, who gave us an all-female choreographer triple bill. I enjoyed all three pieces, with newcomer Rebecca Evans showing great promise with her The Other. Didy Veldman showed plenty of great touches in her The Happiness Project. David Bintley was in the audience the evening I was there. Veldman has made work successfully for ballet companies. Can we hope?

Hannah Kidd and Dane Hurst in Umanoove/Didy Veldman's The Happiness ProjectPhoto Chris Nash
Hannah Kidd and Dane Hurst in Umanoove/Didy Veldman’s The Happiness Project
Photo Chris Nash

The high spots really did just keep coming. I would also add to my list Martin Lawrence’s Tangent for Richard Alston Dance Company, Inter_rupted by Aditi Mangaldas Dance Company from India; a contemporary meets kathak encounter that hit all the right notes; and the marvellously entertaining Pinocchio by Jasmin Vardimon, which has plenty in it for adults and youngsters alike. Tony Adigun, meanwhile, proved that hip hop based dance can tell a story with his Fagin’s Twist for Avant Garde Dance Theatre, part prequel, part alternate ending of the Dicken’s Oliver Twist.

Aditi Mangaldas Dance Company in Inter_ruptedPhoto Foteini Christofilopoulou
Aditi Mangaldas Dance Company in Inter_rupted
Photo Foteini Christofilopoulou

Overseas, highlights included Goecke’s Nijinski for Gauthier Dance in Stuttgart, a thoughtful telling of the great dancer’s story, all done without actually attempting to mimic him on stage; and Lover (愛人) by U-Theatre (優人神鼓) of Taiwan and the Rundfunkchor Berlin. Also in Taipei in the spring, I was rather taken by The Place: a Puppet, a Closet, a Fantasy (所在-人與偶幻化的奇特空間) by Lin Yi-jie (林依潔) for SunShier Dance Theatre (三十舞蹈劇場).

There were plenty of good things at the back end of the year in Taiwan too. I was much impressed by The Floating Space (浮域誌異) by Wu Chien-wei (吳建緯) for his Tussock Dance Company, a really classy and deeply thoughtful work, gorgeously designed. Taipei National University of the Arts’ Winter Concert proved one of the best student performances I’ve seen for a long time, Alternate Realm (鏡界) by Chang Kuo-wei, a great hip hop influenced contemporary piece, just about taking the honours. And who could not fail to like Boy Story Reborn (男再生) up at the Cloud Gate Theater by Unlock Dancing Plaza (不加鎖舞踊館) from Hong Kong, Yuri Ng’s (伍宇烈) original – with many original cast members – being paired with a new, younger, take on the same theme by Ong Yong Lock (王榮祿).

Wu Chien-wei (sitting) and Lin Yu-hua in The Floating SpacePhoto Zhang Xiao-xiong
Wu Chien-wei (sitting) and Lin Yu-hua in The Floating Space
Photo Zhang Xiao-xiong

It’s not all wonderful out East, of course. Having heard much about them, I found Chang Dance Theater’s (長弓舞蹈劇場) String (弦) a desperately weak affair, lacking ideas and focus and with little attachment to the music. Even here, though, you could see they were quality dancers, a testament to that part of the training in Taiwan. But when it comes to student choreography especially (but not exclusively), why does even that which makes its way into public performance leave so much to be desired? I know they are young, and inexperienced, and have a time limit, but that’s no excuse for a weak structure, works simply appearing to end because time is up (ending works seems to be a particularly major problem generally), and lack of musicality, including just fading out or cutting music, sometimes in mid phrase. Student choreographers usually have named advisors in programmes. One hopes they are getting good advice. Maybe they just don’t listen.

Back to the positives, and while not really dance, but I have to mention A Midsummer Night’s Dream by Taiwan’s Contemporary Legend Theatre (當代傳奇劇場), a quite brilliant, hilarious adaptation of Shakespeare’s comedy. I haven’t laughed so much in a theatre for years.

David’s personal awards for 2016:

Best new classical ballet: Wink by Jessica Lang for Birmingham Royal Ballet.

Best other classical ballet: Seventh Symphony, danced by Stuttgart Ballet.

Best interpretation of a classical role: Samara Downs as Katharina in Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Taming of the Shrew.

Best new contemporary ballet: Without doubt, Akram Khan’s Giselle for English National Ballet but, in what has been a very good year, special mentions too for Richard Wherlock’s Robin Hood for Ballett Basel and Demis Volpe’s Salome for Stuttgart Ballet (and you’ll struggle to find two more different works!).

Best other contemporary ballet: Solo Echo by Crystal Pite, performed by Ballet BC, followed closely by the very differently veined Sea of Troubles, by Kenneth MacMillan, danced by Yorke Dance Project.

Best new contemporary work: It’s Akram Khan again, for Until the Lions, but with mentions in despatches too for Betroffeneheit by Crystal Pite and Jonathon Young, Rosie Kay’s Motel, Marco Goecke’s Nijinski and Jasmin Vardimon’s Pinocchio.

Best other contemporary work: So, so many to choose from, but if you have to force my hand, it’s Inter_rupted by Aditi Mangaldas, whose company and contemporary approach to classicism and tradition felt not unlike a sort of Indian Cloud Gate.

Best individual performance in a contemporary work: And yet more Akram Khan! All three dancers in his Until the Lions, Chien Ching-ying (簡晶瀅), Christine Joy Ritter and Khan himself, each quite rightly nominated in the National Dance Awards; plus Rosario Guerra as the Russian genius in Goecke’s Nijinski, and Elisa Badenes as Salome for Stuttgart Ballet.

Most fun: Easy! Contemporary Legend Theatre in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. A special mention here for the students of the Cambridge University Amateur Dramatic Club for their circus meets dance take on Alice at the Edinburgh Fringe. If it’s fun early in the day, it’s definitely fun!

Best festival: International Dance Festival Birmingham. It will be interesting to see how this now develops with David Massingham’s forthcoming departure, not long after his IDFB co-artistic director Stuart Griffiths also left the city.

The ‘forty winks’ Award: Two from Dance Base at the EdFringe, I’m afraid: Unknown & Liminal by Eve Musto and Liadain Herriott, and Flesh by Poliana & Ugne, two hugely disappointing, sleep-inducing hours of little point.

The nice surprises of the year: Alexander Vantournhout in Aneckxander, and Under Siege by Yang Liping.