Ambition and talent shine: National Youth Ballet in Bright Young Things

Crescent Theatre, Birmingham
August 31, 2018

David Mead

It is a very appropriate title for this year’s programme from the National Youth Ballet of Great Britain (now celebrating its 31st year), for Bright Young Things was indeed full of just that. Two hours of fine and enjoyable dance from a company of 105 enthusiastic, spirited and talented performers, all aged between 9 and 18. ‘Bright young things’ could apply to choreographers too, the programme including five new works created by emerging choreographers during NYB’s 10-day summer school.

Best of what is a very good bunch of new ballets is Ada by former English National Ballet and Royal Swedish Ballet dancer Louise Bennett. Based on the life and work of Ada Lovelace, the 19th-century English mathematician and writer, known primarily for her work on Charles Babbage’s proposed mechanical general-purpose computer, the Analytical Engine. Neoclassical in outlook, the choreography is busy but well-structured as it connects mathematics and art through some impressive patterning. Young choreographers often struggle to handle a large ensemble but Bennett does so most adeptly, small groups emerging from and rejoining the crowd with ease. With not much place to hide mistakes, the dancing needed to be clean and together and was. I liked Tessa Balls’ clean, simple costumes too. I wanted more!

Ada by Louise BennettPhoto Sean Purser
Ada by Louise Bennett
Photo Sean Purser

I also enjoyed Finding Your Voice by Jo Meredith, Creative Director of English National Ballet’s Youth Company. Based on the rise of 1920s American silent film star Clara Bow, it takes us from the baseball-playing tom boy of the streets of Brooklyn to Hollywood star. Out of necessity and as with one or two of the other pieces, Meredith has the story move on at pace. While it’s done well, it would have been good to have been able to flesh things out a little. There were excellent characterisations from Anya Mercer as Clara and Euan Garrett as the Boy Next Door. Look out too for a classic ‘Giselle moment’ as one of the male characters who has been putting himself about a little too much is danced out of the piece by the ensemble’s girls.

Matthew Nicholson’s new Another Night’s Dream is a modern take on Shakespeare’s comedy. It largely takes place in the expected forest, despite the programme telling us it’s set in 1960s America (one short scene is set in a high school prom). It is narratively confused elsewhere too and is best viewed as collection of moments, a dipping in and out of a longer story, than something linear. From the multicoloured costumes of the pixies (fairies) to MacLeod’s projected background of a stylised forest and school gymnasium, it is a visual treat. The fairy dust had clearly been liberally spread as there were many sparkling performances. I was particularly taken by a duet for Zander (Lysander, danced by Ben Randall) and Dom (Demitrius, William Griffiths), and Jessica Templeton’s sweet-natured Titania. I also rather took to the way Oberon’s son (changeling boy) seems to be put upon by pixies.

Sophie Laplane’s Watusi apparently explores parallels in herd mentality in humans and animals. Rather more contemporary in tone, it struggles for clarity somewhat, although it’s not without interest, one duet in particular. It was just unfortunate that it gets overshadowed by the ensemble. It was also the one work where the unison was not all it might have been.

There was new work for the Junior Company too, who delighted in Emily-Jane Boyle’s The Red Balloon, a narrative ballet based on the 1950’s Albert Lamorisse film. Rio Barker was the boy (Pascal in the film) followed by the balloon he finds (or more accurately that finds him). India Kennedy charmed everyone with her winning smile as the girl with the blue balloon.

National Youth Ballet dancersPhoto ASH
National Youth Ballet dancers
Photos ASH

Two works from NYB’s repertoire return. Antony Dowson’s 1950’s inspired classic Bright Young Things is set just after the end of the Second World War. Danced against a backdrop of war damage but danced to three foot-tapping Glenn Miller tunes, it’s truly upbeat. The five lead couples all shone, although Euan Garrett as the sailor particularly took the eye with some excellent turns and general joie de vivre. A little surprisingly, it was the only piece with any pointework.

Janet Kinson’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra was well-led by the crazy-haired Basil James as its conductor. It is better when it avoids the mime, though, and sticks to dance.

Returning to something new, Honor Dixon gave a strong performance in her contemporary Blissfully Now, with which she won NYB’s annual Frank Freeman Choreographic Competition.

While the dancing was excellent throughout, I found Kenneth MacLeod’s projections infuriating. Sometimes they are near perfect, as in Another Night’s Dream, Bright Young Things and Find Your Voice. I like his very unique style and the way he shifts them in and out like an old-fashioned slide projector, but he does seem to like to keep them moving. In Ada, the cog and flywheel-style designs clearly link to the theme but they never stop. At the very least, they need slowing down. Maybe it will look better at a greater distance at the Sadler’s Wells gala, but here they distracted constantly from the dance, and with so many good things happening on stage, that was unfortunate. There are times when he does too much in The Red Balloon too, although the final scene as the other balloons rise to take the boy on a cluster balloon ride over the city is a gem, though.

But back to the dancing, and it is impossible not to be moved and seriously impressed by the remarkable young people on stage. Talent needs nurturing. Led by artistic director Mikah Smillie, NYB not only does that but provides invaluable experience working as a company. The programme had an impressive list of alumni. Many of this year’s ‘bright young things’ will surely follow in their footsteps.