Ballet leads the way in the 22nd National Dance Awards

The winners of the 22nd National Dance Awards, covering performances from January to December 2021, were announced at a ceremony at the Barbican on June 13, 2022 hosted by the brilliantly easy-going pairing of Begoñia Cao and Giorgio Garrett, former principal and present artist with English National Ballet respectively.

The awards came from 355 recommendations from members of the Dance Section of the Critics’ Association, subsequently whittled down to 70 nominations and 15 winners. The awards are somewhat even more dominated by classical ballet than usual, although this is likely a consequence of the unique circumstances of the year. The larger companies, mostly ballet companies, were quite simply better placed and more quickly able to resume live performances after the reopening of theatres in May. That the 2021 dance year was reduced to around seven months’ of live performances did leave critics with less scope to make nominations generally.

The Royal Ballet’s dancers and creatives picked up five awards. The Dancing Times Award for Best Male Dancer went to Edward Watson, the only dancer he’s ever seen described as a rhino, said editor Jonathan Gray as he opened the envelope. The award for Best Female Dancer went to Marianela Nuñez.

Marianela Nuñez (here with Vadim Muntagirov)
in the Grand pas de deux from Don Quixote at the 2021 Ballet Icons Gala
Photo Jack Devant

Also heading to Covent Garden are the awards for Best Classical Choreography, which goes to Valentino Zucchetti for Anemoi; Outstanding Female Classical Performance, to Natalia Osipova for the title role in Giselle); and Outstanding Creative Contribution, an award for other than dancers and choreographers, which goes to composer Thomas Adès for the score for Wayne McGregor’s The Dante Project.

In his acceptance speech, Zucchetti spoke for all as he paid tribute to everyone behind the scenes who worked so hard to get shows on in what was a very difficult year for all.

English National Ballet in Tamara Rojo’s Raymonda
Photo Johan Persson

Tamara Rojo has done much to reinvigorate the fortunes of English National Ballet during her tenure as artistic director. As she bids farewell for the west coast of the US to take over at San Francisco Ballet, it seems fitting that ENB should pick up the Stef Stefanou Award for Outstanding Company.

Also heading ENB’s way is the award for Outstanding Male Classical Performance, which goes to Jeffrey Cirio, who produced a remarkable interpretation of the title role in Akram Khan’s Creature. Cirio spoke deeply about how working with Khan had been a huge learning experience that he will carry for ever. He also observed that, while the production suffered many delays and several postponed premieres, Creature probably needed that time to truly breathe life into it.

That Cirio picked up the classical award for the work rather than the modern one does highlight how blurred the boundaries between the two are nowadays. The Emerging Artist Award also went to ENB, to Emily Suzuki.

Jeffrey Cirio as the Creature with Victor-Prigent as Andres
in Akram Khan’s Creature for English National Ballet
Photo Ambra Vernucci

Mid-scale companies have often been squeezed out of the National Dance Awards, so this year sees the introduction of a new award for companies that receive National Portfolio Organisation funding or equivalent, but that sits between the existing Outstanding Company and Best Independent Company awards. This has the double benefit of then allowing more smaller companies, and more project-based freelancers, to be recognised. The Best Mid-Scale Company Award went to Ballet Black (a very popular choice), while the Best Independent Company Award went to Yorke Dance Project.

Robert Cohan’s Afternoon Conversations with Dancers for Yorke Dance Project
(pictured: Romany Pajdak)
Photo Pierre Tappon

Sir Matthew Bourne’s The Midnight Bell was nominated in five categories and walked away with two awards: Best Modern Choreography, and Outstanding Female Modern Performance, which went to Michela Meazza for her portrayal of Miss Roach.

The award for Outstanding Male Modern Performance went to James Vu Anh Pham in Akram Khan’s Outwitting the Devil.

This year’s award winners include recognition for the genius of a choreographer (and amazing dancer) who is no longer with us: Gene Kelly. The revival and reimagining of his Pas de Dieux, originally choreographed for Paris Opera Ballet in 1960, now successfully revisited by Scottish Ballet with a new title, Starstruck, with his original choreography recreated and reimagined by Christopher Hampson, won the Best Dance Film Award.

To everyone’s delight, Kelly’s widow, Patricia, who worked closely with the creative team, was in London to collect the award in person. Clearly thrilled, she observed that, while her late husband was a fabulous dancer, it was as a choreographer that he always wanted to be remembered. Hampson observed that, to make a successful ballet, “You surround yourself with brilliant people. We had such a ball making the piece.”

Christopher Harrison and Sophie Martin in Starstruck
Photo Gavin Smart

Finally, the De Valois Award for Lifetime Achievement went to John Ashford, theatre director at The Place from 1986 to 2009, and a man whose vision and drive helped make contemporary dance into the force it is today. It was Ashford who turned The Place into a major dance venue, promoting hundreds of young choreographers, some of whom such as Lloyd Newson, Wayne McGregor and Hofesh Shechter would go on to be household names. A man full of ideas, as Sanjoy Roy noted in his speech introducing Ashford, he also created The Place Prize and Resolution. Ashford also founded Aerowaves, the European cross-border platform for emerging choreographers. Although he steps down its director later this year, he is still brim full of schemes as he showed in his speech. He was, said Roy, a man who helped others to achieve. He still is.

The National Dance Awards 2021 in summary:

De Valois Award: John Ashford
Dancing Times Award for Best Male Dancer: Edward Watson
Best Female Dancer: Marianela Nuñez
Stef Stefanou Award for Outstanding Company: English National Ballet 
Best Mid-scale Company: Ballet Black
Best Independent Company: Yorke Dance Project
Best Classical Choreography: Valentino Zucchetti for Anemoi
Best Modern Choreography: Matthew Bourne for The Midnight Bell
Emerging Artist Award: Emily Suzuki
Outstanding Female Modern Performance: Michela Meazza as Miss Roach in The Midnight Bell
Outstanding Male Modern Performance: James Vu Anh Pham in Outwitting the Devil
Outstanding Female Classical Performance: Natalia Osipova in the title role in Giselle
Outstanding Male Classical Performance: Jeffrey Cirio in the title role in Creature
Outstanding Creative Contribution: Thomas Adès (composer) for The Dante Project
Best Dance Film: Scottish Ballet for Starstruck