Looking to the future: Time in Motion by The National Youth Ballet

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham
August 26, 2017

David Mead

For their 30th anniversary, National Youth Ballet artistic director Mikah Smillie has put together Time in Motion, an impressive programme of eight short ballets on the loose theme of a journey through time. With dance from emerging and established choreographers, the mix of new dance and old favourites is hugely enjoyable and shows the talented young performers off to their best.

Dancers from across NYB’s 8 to 18 age range featured in the opening revival of Carnival by Scottish Ballet artistic director Christopher Hampson. It may be set to Saint-Saëns’ Carnival of the Animals but forget the natural world. Hampson instead delivers a carnival of abstract dance. My favourite dance sees a small group of females in a line, in identical voluminous purple, cream and blue dresses. As they hold them up in front of their faces, all we are left with is what looks like a line of disembodied legs. The unison dance calls for great timing and got it. Elsewhere, Basil James and Anya Mercer were delightful in the pas de deux, nicely in tune with each other, with some solid lifts from James. I also liked the all-male dance to ‘The Swan’, especially James Lovell’s opening solo.

The National Youth Ballet in Christopher Hampson's CarnivalPhoto Sean Purser
The National Youth Ballet in Christopher Hampson’s Carnival
Photo Sean Purser

Three new ballets come from NYB’s Beyond Ballet platform, which offers emerging choreographers opportunities to create new dance. Louise Bennett’s A Frosty Fable is a diverting dance for the junior members of the company that takes two youngsters on a journey to a wintry playland. I’m not convinced about using music from Delibes’ Coppélia, though. As is often the case when well-known music from popular ballets is used for something else, it comes with too many other associations.

After Aspirations by Samira Saidi, a pleasing all-female corps de ballet work full of nice patterns, it was off to the American West with Etta Murfitt’s new Oklahoma Dream!, inspired by the dream ballet from the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical.

The National Youth Ballet in Oklahoma Dream! by Etta MurfittPhoto Sean Purser
The National Youth Ballet in Oklahoma Dream! by Etta Murfitt
Photo Sean Purser

The dancers throw themselves into their characters, with all clearly defined. Asher Rosenheim is a tall and handsome lead (effectively Curly, although Murfitt opts to simply identify characters as ‘Lead Boy’ and suchlike), partnered by a glowing Anya Mercer. Their short duet was full of the innocence of young love. Oliver Selwood plays the Baddie nicely mean and nasty. A great cowboy dance for the boys was particularly impressive, as was the realistic fight scene. As good as the projections that go with it are (the saloon is especially effective), I could have done without them changing quite so often.

There is more excellent characterisation in the most complex of the Beyond Ballet works, Steamboat Summer by Ruth Brill, first artist with Birmingham Royal Ballet, who recently premiered Arcadia, her first main-stage work for the company. Set to foot-tapping jazz taken from Raymond Fol’s Les Quatre Saisons “In Jazz”, Brill’s ballet is bright, busy and fits the dancers like a glove.

The National Youth Ballet in Ruth Brill's Steamboat SummerPhoto Sean Purser
The National Youth Ballet in Ruth Brill’s Steamboat Summer
Photo Sean Purser

The action never lets up for a moment, a series of short dances largely illustrating the characters in moments taken from the ship’s journey. I especially enjoyed a sunny number for eleven girls that you could imagine taking place around a swimming pool or on a sundeck. A hint of narrative slowly appears surrounding two of the passengers: a white-suited, confident and cool man with something of an air of mystery about him (danced by Basil James), although we never find out what, and a young lady he meets (Clarice Armstrong).

As impressive as Steamboat Summer was at the Crescent, the stage often seemed too crowded. It has a cast of 39 and, at times, small groups did seem to be getting in each other’s way. I suspect it will look much better on the larger, and significantly deeper Sadler’s Wells stage.

The National Youth Ballet in IKEN by Jonathan PaynPhoto Sean Purser
The National Youth Ballet in IKEN by Jonathan Payn
Photo Sean Purser

It’s ‘something old’ that takes the choreographic honours, though: the beautifully classical IKEN by Jonathan Payn, also a Birmingham Royal Ballet first soloist. First performed in 2001, it’s inspired by the Suffolk landscape, the gorgeously atmospheric backdrop being the view behind Snape Maltings, the concert hall founded by Benjamin Britten, and to whose Simple Symphony the dance is set. Iken is the village that peeps above the reeds in the far distance.

The enormous sense of space evoked by that backdrop with its big sky is reflected in the Payn’s choreography. IKEN is a dance for young people about young people. Initially it’s all lyrical. In flowing, largely pastel coloured dresses, the women dance with freedom but also as if they know things must change, and indeed it’s not long before emotions start to take hold in a series of short duets. As they contemplate their futures, a dancer looking wistfully out across the reed beds into their future is a powerful recurring image.

National Youth Ballet dancers Oliver Selwood and Emily Galvin in their own Without the LightsPhoto Sean Purser
National Youth Ballet dancers Oliver Selwood and Emily Galvin in their own
Without the Lights
Photo Sean Purser

NYB clearly has some promising choreographers among its dancers too. Winner of the company’s in-house choreography competition, Without the Lights, created and danced by Selwood and Emily Galvin, is an impressive short duet danced in and around a single pool of light. It starts with some nice symmetry before a sense of relationship develops, with good interplay between them. As tends to be the way these days, it’s more contemporary than classically balletic.

The National Youth Ballet in T-Symmetry by Arielle SmithPhoto Sean Purser
The National Youth Ballet in T-Symmetry by Arielle Smith
Photo Sean Purser

Closing the show, Arielle Smith’s T-Symmetry (another Beyond Ballet creation) is edgy and urban in mood. The dancers showed they are just as adept at out and out contemporary work as classical ballet. There’s some excellent lighting by Andrew Ellis too, especially the curtains of light that sweep down. Behind everything, Kenneth MacLeod creates some interesting projections, a series of monochrome shapes and patters constantly on the move as they morph from one to another. While they tend to compliment the big ensemble sections, again they are a little too busy at times and take the eye away from the dancers, especially during the central duet which features some excellent partnering.

Time in Motion by The National Youth Ballet is at Sadler’s Wells on Sunday September 3. For details and tickets, click here.