Dancing Nation celebrates British dance in all its forms

Dancing Nation part one
BBC iPlayer and Sadler’s Wells website
January 27, 2021

Review of Dancing Nation part two
Review of Dancing Nation part three

David Mead

“You don’t think of the UK as a dancing nation, but it is,” emphasises Sadler’s Well’s Artistic Director Alistair Spalding in a brief interview during the first programme of Dancing Nation, the three-part collaboration between the theatre and BBC Arts. Featuring fifteen pre-recorded performances, with artists taking over spaces Sadler’s Wells’ stages, staircases, foyer and even the front window, it is a celebration of dance in all its forms, by well-known and emerging artists, from right across the country. A mix of works new and old, it’s also a demonstration of the breadth and diversity of work being made and performed.

With that number of pieces, mostly excerpts, there are bound to be highs and a few not-so-highs (that goes for the presenter Brenda Emmanus’ interviews with the choreographers and directors too), although things get off to a cracking start with the oldest work performed: Matthew Bourne’s Spitfire. Made in 1988, this expanded version features six men in assorted white underwear. It’s brilliant send-up of 19th-century Romantic ballet and Jules Perrot’s Pas de Quatre in particular.

Nicolas Vendange, Megan Armishaw and Mickaella Dantas in Face In by Yasmeen GodderPhoto Hugo Glendinning
Candoco Dance Company in Face In by Yasmeen Godder
Photo Hugo Glendinning

The patterns are neat and the technique assured, but what really makes Spitfire is the way the men extract every ounce of innuendo, the narcissistic way each milks every second they are in the spotlight for all its worth. In that sense it may well not be a quite as far from Perrot’s foursome of Lucile Grahn, Carlotta Grisi, Fanny Cerrito, and Marie Taglioni as you might think. They too had enormous egos. As they looked to get one up on their rivals, choreography was arranged to make each look their best and there were arguments about which order they should perform their solos. Perhaps it’s a wonder the original cast managed even four performances together.

An extract from Candoco’s Face In brings a complete change. Set to an urban indie score Yasmeen’s Godder’s work is chaotic. Set in a world where everyone and everything seems banal, it features as dysfunctional group of individuals as you could wish to meet. They take great pleasure in holding clothing in their teeth, climbing on each others’ backs, holding a crutch between their legs so it resembles you know what, and later one balancing the same on her face. I recall not being enthused by the full work. For all the dancers’ commitment and energy, it works even less well in excerpt.

A moment from Window ShoppingScreenshot from film
A moment from Window Shopping
Screenshot from film

Dancing Nation is a window shopping sort of experience. You have to agree with Breakin’ Convention Artistic Director Jonzi D’s hope that, when all this is over, some of the new audience who have browsed dance online will come to the theatre and experience it for real. Which brings us neatly to the very appropriately titled Window Shopping, curated by Jonzi and Breakin’ Convention.

The work shifts through the empty spaces of Sadler’s Wells. In the window, Jonadette Carpio and Brook Milliner pop, snap and shudder, their dance having an unexpected fluidity. It’s no wonder it made passers-by stop and look. Shifting to the foyer, Faye Stoeser, Hannah Kohlm and Michael Oladele strut like they are on a fashion show runway. Not that I would be buying. The dancers are fine but the costumes (and those that follow), even allowing for present difficulties, leave much to be desired. Unfortunately, Naomí Luz and Magdalena Mannion’s flamenco on the staircase, and a balletic solo from Mukeni Nel ballet on the mezzanine both fail to excite, although it has to be said that Nel appeared to being very watchful on what looked a seriously slippy floor.

Humanhood’s Orbis is described as an exploration of the relationship between humankind and the dark side of the Moon. In the excerpt shown, Júlia Robert and Rudi Cole certainly spin around each other to effect in what could be seen as a demonstration of the satellite’s magnetic pull. In their sweeping long black coats, I rather saw bats. As with their Sphera in programme two, the foyer space doesn’t do the dance too many favours, although I can imagine it being very atmospheric if performed outdoors at night.

A moment from the film of Stina Quagebeur’s Hollow
A moment from the film of Stina Quagebeur’s Hollow

Closing the programme is Stina Quagebeur’s seven-minute contemporary duet Hollow featuring Emily Suzuki and Victor Prigent in a recording taken from last autumn’s livestream of English National Ballet’s Emerging Dancer.

Music and dance come together perfectly. Beautifully constructed, gorgeously danced and full of meaning, it’s about a couple contending with depression. Bodies intertwine. Attempts are made to support but invariable seem to be rebuffed. They may be together in space, but their minds could be a million miles apart. She remains lost in her void, her mind wandering in never-ending space; and although he wants to help, wants to offer support, he seems so powerless.

Dancing Nation is on BBC iPlayer (for UK viewers) and www.sadlerswells.com (international viewers) until February 26, 2021.