BBC celebrates UK dance in season of new programmes on BBC Four

David Mead casts his eye over a series of new programmes that starts on Sunday May 6.

The celebrated yet controversial and complex figure that was Sir Kenneth MacMillan has probably been the subject of more analysis than any ballet choreographer. A season of new programmes on BBC Four celebrating the British dance scene opens with a new look at the man whose new approach to ballet and storytelling, and pioneering creativity unleashed over sixty new works that played a big part in changing the ballet landscape forever.

It starts and the end as it were, with poignant memories and reflections on the night in 1992 when he died backstage at Covent Garden during a performance of his Mayerling. Then, weaving together specially-shot footage, previously unseen family films and MacMillan’s own voice from the archives alongside commentary from those who were closest to him, Ballet’s Dark Knight – Sir Kenneth MacMillan presents a portrait of the choreographic genius while not shying away from his private struggles with alcoholism, anxiety and depression. It is beautifully shot and edited although some may find the constant switching between performance and rehearsal footage, observations, reflections and photographs occasionally annoying.

Kenneth MacMillanPhoto Roy Round
Kenneth MacMillan
Photo Roy Round

MacMillan himself talks of his early life and his parents dying while he was young; how he enjoyed Fred Astaire and learned tap dancing, always to remain something he enjoyed; and his approach to making ballets. “I wanted to choreograph people,” he explains.

Those who worked with him expand on that. “He choreographed life, real life, not in a romantic way, not as a fairy tale…and you can’t have life without death,” says Alessandra Ferri. She adds, “He was the first choreographer who really stretched the physicality of the dancer.” Critic Clement Crisp sums MacMillan up neatly saying, “He never swindled the audience out of the truth as he saw it.”

Among others giving their insights into the choreographer are his widow Lady Deborah MacMillan, his daughter Charlotte and dancers including Dame Darcey Bussell, Dame Monica Mason and Sir Anthony Dowell.

The Dark Knight is followed immediately by the contemporary ballet, to a simple, rock ‘n’ roll . . . song, by Michael Clark, a triple bill that pays homage to three of his greatest musical influences: the punk rock of Patti Smith’s album, Horses; the coolly refined Erik Satie; and the at times elegiac, at times joyously rebellious David Bowie. The production also features a stage adaptation by Clark’s long-time collaborator Charles Atlas of his multi-channel video installation, Painting by Numbers.

Beatriz Stix-Brunell and Yasmine Naghdi
Beatriz Stix-Brunell and Yasmine Naghdi

Rounding off the Sunday evening of dance is Duet, a short film featuring Yasmine Naghdi and Beatriz Stix-Brunell exploring the female within the world of ballet. With dance choreographed by Kristen McNally, the pair discuss and perform an all-female pas-de-deux, showcasing not just grace and beauty but strength, athleticism and power.

Stix-Brunell explains, “The classical pas de deux has always been a formulaic interaction between a man and woman. In Duet, Yasmine and I attempt a different spin through Kristen McNally’s choreography. Initially unfamiliar to dance so closely with another female, it quickly evolved into something that affirms the grandeur and tradition of ballet in tandem with a current theme: the intimate and emotional celebration of movement and the supreme importance of women.”

From Monday May 7 to Thursday May 10, and created in partnership with Sadler’s Wells, DanceWorks features four 30-minute artist-led films offer a behind-the-scenes glimpse into contemporary and classical dance in Britain today. Each film focuses on a well-known or emerging choreographer, following their process as they create new work and explore ideas and themes that inspire them.

DanceWorks opens with The Dying Swan, a film featuring former Royal Ballet principal Zenaida Yanowsky that uses the metaphor of a ballet about death to explore how a dancer fights age, the deterioration of the body over time and fear of retirement. It looks at Yanowsky’s fight back to fitness from knee surgery so she can literally perform a swansong. The film also features her an Natalia Osipova exchanging reflections on the iconic ballet.

Street to Stage follows Dickson Mbi as he attempts to transition from his street dance roots to contemporary dance. The film follows his winning the UK heat of the international street dance competition Keep on Dancing, and looks at the challenges facing him as he choreographs and performs his first contemporary dance solo under the guidance of Akram Khan’s producer, Farooq Chaudhry.

Phil Sanger in O MariaPhoto Joe Armitage
Phil Sanger in O Maria by Carlos Pons Guerra
Photo Joe Armitage

Shobana Jeyasingh’s new work Contagion evokes the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic that killed over 50 million people worldwide. The film, Choreographing History, allows an insight into her artistic process and sources of inspiration as she researches the pandemic and attempts to translate what she finds into movement.

“I’ve always loved dancing. I’m Spanish and it’s in our blood,” says Carlos Pons Guerra at the start of the film, Prejudice and Passion. Early on, it shows his Da Nada Dance Theatre rehearsing O Maria, a work typical of his witty, sophisticated and darkly humorous take on the classic archetypes of Spanish culture, gender politics, sexual identity, intertwining cultures and religion.

Pons Guerra’s work can excite emotions in the audience too. Indeed, one performance at mac in Birmingham produced such debate in the front row that a minor fracas ensued. Perhaps that’s not surprising. O Maria (part of his Ham and Passion programme that really does include a large ham) for example, includes a nymphomaniac, the Virgin Mary and a man dressed as a woman. His thought process is partly revealed when he notes that no-one actually asked her if she wanted to be the Virgin Mary, although he stresses that the work is not an attack on the church but an observation of gender; “a theology of acceptance,” as he puts it.

Now, Pons Guerra brings his avant-garde, physical and intensely theatrical style to a broader audience. follows him as he begins choreographing a new children’s production at the Birmingham Rep, which tells a true story of two male penguins raising a baby penguin. He makes no secret about using the dance to set an agenda, to take the fight for acceptance that has defined him into the mainstream, but can he win over family audiences?

Clarke Peters
Clarke Peters

Moving across the Atlantic, actor Clarke Peters embarks on a personal journey to discover the origins, development and contemporary significance of tap dancing in a new documentary Tap America: How a Nation Found Its Feet.

Clarke learned to tap dance as a child in the kitchen of his home in New Jersey, after his mother showed him the ‘Flat Foot Floogie (with a Floy-Floy)’. Fascinated by tap ever since, he went on to perform it himself in numerous stage productions such as Bubbling Brown Sugar. Now he looks at the beginnings and development of this form of dance, revealing it to be as American and Afro-American as hip-hop. He looks at the 19th-century conflict between Irish and African-American dancers and the hidden troubles of the Hollywood heyday of tap in the 1930s and 40s, discovering how greats such as Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly were indebted to and inspired by the great Afro-American tap dancers who were routinely excluded from significant roles in the movies.

Coming right up to date, Clarke also looks at tap in the 21st-century, meeting the up-and-coming stars of modern tap including Michelle Dorrance and Beyoncé-collaborator Chloe Arnold.

Finally, the season will also include the launch of BBC Young Dancer 2019, the biennial competition for non-professional UK resident dancers aged 16-21. Young dancers will again enter in one of four categories: Ballet, Contemporary, South Asian Dance and Street Dance. Entries will open later this month.

The dancers’ competition journeys will be documented on BBC Four with the Category Finals staged at The Lowry in Salford, from where five dancers will progress through to the Grand Final (the four category winners and a judges’ wild card) which will be held for the first time at the Birmingham Hippodrome.

Looking further ahead, the BBC will also be screening Wayne McGregor’s Atomos later in the year.

(All on BBC Four)

Sunday May 6
9.00pm: Ballet’s Dark Knight – Sir Kenneth MacMillan
10.00pm: Michael Clark’s to a simple, rock ‘n’ roll . . . song
10.55pm: Duet

Monday May 7
7.30pm: The Dying Swan

Tuesday May 8
7.30pm: Street to Stage

Wednesday May 9
7.30pm: Choreographing History

Thursday May 10
7.30pm: Prejudice and Passion

Friday May 18
Time tbc: Tap America: How A Nation Found Its Feet