A new ballet company debuts: Awakenings by McNicol Ballet Collective

Bloomsbury Theatre, London
November 13, 2021

After an eighteen-month delay, the McNicol Ballet Collective finally made its stage debut with the appropriately titled Awakenings, a programme of four contemporary ballet world premieres by Andrew McNicol, all inspired by music. While undoubtedly modern-feeling and of today, all are also very much rooted in classical ballet, something very much to be welcomed.

The opening In Ecstasy demonstrates neatly the pleasing fluidity of McNichol’s choreography. Athletic in nature, it’s never still, pairings and groups splitting into singles after fleeting contact, although perhaps it could do with a little more light and shade. It is well supported by Nicolas Thayer and Setareh Narfisi’s score, a combination of scything strings with metallic sounds in a sort of industrial orchestral fusion. On paper it sounds awful, but in fact is rhythmically very interesting and full of subtleties.

McNicol Ballet Collective in In Ecstasy
Photo Amber Hunt

Of Silence is anything but, being set to choral music by Latvian composer Pēteris Vasks. An exploration of hope, connection and belonging, it has a rather melancholy mood. Again, the choreography combines easily ensemble work with duets and solos. At times it is spellbinding, thanks in no small part to the strong connection with the music, but elsewhere it not entirely convinced it coheres as fully as it might. Bella Thomas’ costumes, skirts for the men, shorts for the women, do them few favours.

Bates Beats is an energetic piece to the music of American composer Mason Bates, the first composer-in-residence at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, whose score fuses lighter sounds with dark underlying beats. Essentially a series of moments performed under smoky spotlights, it’s busy if unexacting, and the least memorable of the four creations.

Performed in what is the 50th anniversary of composer Igor Stravinsky’s death, Awakenings concluded with Firebird Reimagined a new, reimagined version of the story, performed to the condensed 1919 Firebird Suite rather than the full version. McNicol had presented a dance film of the ballet online back in September, so we had some idea what to expect.

It is certainly a bold, modern interpretation, although if you are expecting the colours of the original and its story, you are going to be disappointed. The very much complete reconceptualization features a man trapped in a world where everything is dull and repetitive and where autonomy and individuality has been frozen out, but who is then rescued and finds freedom with the arrival of the Firebird.

Andrew McNicol’s Firebird Reimagined for McNicol Ballet Collective
Photo ASH

Kristen McGarrity is a super Firebird who draws out its character. There is colour and vibrancy in her dance, if not in the costume, a rather unappealing black flattering baggy trousers and cropped top combination that made her look anything but the eponymous avian. The rest of the cast fare a little better, although their loose white trousers and tops reminded me of judo garb.

I suspect Firebird Reimagined may be a bit of a Marmite ballet. While certainly an interesting take on the original, it failed to win me over, and does few favours to Stravinsky’s marvellous suite. Andrew Ellis’ lighting (quite superb throughout all four pieces; inventive and that actually lights the dancers rather casting them in the currently fashionable half-darkness) has a brilliantly apocalyptic quality, however, spilling out into the stalls to light the first few rows.

McNicol Ballet Collective in Of Silence
Photo ASH

McNicol says it was always his dream to set up his own ballet initiative. To then debut it with a full programme of entirely your own work would have been quite an achievement in pre-pandemic times, let alone now. That the company is set up as a collective where the dancers clearly have plenty of input into the production and work in an intimate setting is to be lauded. It deserves to succeed and prosper, and it will be interesting to see where it goes from here.