A summer evening in the park with The Royal Ballet School

Opera Holland Park, London
June 29, 2017

David Mead

The Royal Ballet School annual performance at The Royal Opera House may be the one that gets the most attention, but the preceding performances at Kensington’s temporary 1,000-seat Holland Park Theatre, built from scratch each year, offer a closer, more intimate occasion. And on a pleasant summer evening, is there a better place to watch ballet and look out a few future stars?

Fokine’s Les Sylphides led off the largely Upper School show. As its original title, Chopiniana, suggests, it’s essentially an abstract piece that expresses the eight pieces of Chopin to which it is danced. Sylphs are woodland sprites, however, playful ones at that, something I got little sense of. You don’t want to take that too far, of course, but while the dancers were certainly elegant (save for a couple of unfortunate slips), it was largely a bit too somnolent for my liking. Sae Maeda stood out for seeming really alive, though. As the poet, Haoliang Feng showed some very light landings and looks a good partner, but again seemed just rather distant.

Things certainly picked up with Here We Come, a cheerful, energetic, technically difficult work made originally for the National Ballet School of Canada in 1978, and danced by the White Lodge Year 10 and 11 students.

Daichi Ikarashi in Here We ComePhoto The Royal Ballet School/Johan Persson
Daichi Ikarashi in Erik Bruhn’s Here We Come
Photo The Royal Ballet School/Johan Persson

It’s a suite of six dances for 12 men in white sailor uniforms, all set to toe-tapping Morton Gould marches. A jaunty nautical spirit runs deep in choreography, which includes snappy salutes and marching on and off. Among the dances is ‘Tango’, a solo full of hip-circles and leg flicks (James Large) and a ‘Karate’, a ballet-meets-martial arts affair full of all the expected poses and kicks. The highlight came with the simply titled but very challenging ‘Solo’, though. Daichi Ikarashi dazzled everyone as he made the fiendishly difficult choreography with its many turns look a breeze. Terrific stuff.

In the Pas de Quatre from Ashton’s Swan Lake, I was particularly taken by the attack and precision shown by Yu Karihara, and the easy style and excellent turns of the tall Eli Gruska, both 2nd Years.

The tempo certainly pumped up with Ohad Naharin’s Echad Mi Yodea, originally from his 1990 piece, Kyr (commonly known as the “chair piece”). After Naharin’s voice talks of “the illusion of beauty and the fine line that separates madness from sanity, the panic behind the laughter and the coexistence of fatigue and elegance,” the Israeli rock group Tractor’s Revenge kicks in with their throbbing version of the cumulative Passover song of the title.

As the song builds, each verse longer than the preceding one, so does the dance. The 2nd and 3rd Year Upper School students gave it everything. In their solemn black suits, they threw back their bodies, spread their arms, wildly shook their heads and hurled their clothes to the heavens as if divinely possessed. It was a marvellous celebration of freedom, and yet with unison that was very impressive.

(l-r) Augustus Payne, Joshua Junker and Fernando Martin-Gullans in Hans van Manen's SoloPhoto The Royal Ballet School/Johan Persson
(l-r) Augustus Payne, Joshua Junker and Fernando Martin-Gullans
in Hans van Manen’s Solo
Photo The Royal Ballet School/Johan Persson

Three of the 3rd Year Upper School men, Joshua Junker, Fernando Martin-Gullans and Augustus Payne got the chance to impress with their speed and pace in Hans van Manen’s Solo. There was a fine sense of competition as they took it in turns to impress with their explosive leaps and turns, the intensity ramping ever up, before coming together in the final unison section. The roars of the audience were well-deserved.

Didy Veldman’s See Blue Through, to Schnittke’s gorgeous Sonata for Violin and Chamber Orchestra, is yet another example of what a wonderful choreographer she is. It was inspired by the mysteries of underwater life. Only the duet was danced here, but the perfectly-matched and sinuous and pliant Katharina Nikelski and Harris Bell (both 2nd Year) certainly gave the impression of being suspended in water, flashes of edgy movement being balanced by calmer moments when they just drift in the current. The unusual lifts were all very well done.

In this year that marks the 25th anniversary of the death of Kenneth MacMillan, it seemed only natural that the evening should round off with one of his classics, and what better than the sublimely beautiful Concerto.

Yu Hang and Nicholas Landon in Kenneth MacMillan's ConcertoPhoto The Royal Ballet School/Johan Persson
Yu Hang and Nicholas Landon
in Kenneth MacMillan’s Concerto
Photo The Royal Ballet School/Johan Persson

In the first and third movements, the dancers filled the stage with the light, exuberant energy that runs through the Shostakovich score. Kurihara and partner Harrison Lee shone in the opening, with Amelia Townsend matching them in the jaunty third movement. All were more than ably backed up by the corps, whose work in the third movement sometime looks like an inventive take on military drill.

The heart of the ballet is the tender and melancholic pas de deux of the slow second movement, though. Yu Hang (still only 2nd Year but clearly one to watch out for), well-supported by Nicholas Landon (3rd Year), grabbed us and was not going to let go. It may be a duet without fireworks, but they packed it with emotion. It was utterly beguiling and quite spine-tingling; and it worked perfectly against the backdrop of the house.

The list of companies the graduating students are joining is as impressive as ever. Joining the Royal Ballet companies are Joonhyuk Jun, Joshua Junker, Sae Maeda, Nadia Mullover-Barley, Aiden O’Brien and Amelia Palmiero, all to The Royal Ballet’s Aud Jebsen Young Dancers Programme; while Haoliang Feng, Augustus Payne, Harry Wright and Claudia Nicholson are all off to Birmingham Royal Ballet. Also staying in Britain are Jerome Barnes and Alice Kawalek (to Scottish Ballet) and Alice Bellini (to English National Ballet).