Royal Opera House, London
July 16, 2022
After last year’s slimmed down performance, with the dancers in year group bubbles and the Lower School able only to appear in the closing Grand Defilé on film, it was good to be back with all 225 White Lodge and Upper School students present, said The Royal Ballet School, Artistic Director, Christopher Powney, in his short opening remarks. You have to agree.
Without doubt, the highlight of the afternoon was John Neumeier’s Yondering. The choreographer might be a Royal Ballet School alumnus, but his other connections to ballet in England are tenuous with his works sadly rarely seen. Set to a series of 19th-century American popular songs by American composer Stephen Foster, sung by Thomas Hampson, it was an absolute delight. Not only is the ballet a joy choreographically but the Upper School students clearly enjoyed dancing it as much as the audience did watching it.
Made originally for Canada’s National Ballet School in 1996, Yondering explores themes of innocence and adventure but also comes with a slightly sad, wistful tone. Neumeier has always refused permission for professional companies to dance the work believing that only students can embody the spirit of the ballet and its naïve, idealistic atmosphere. There’s a sense of losing friends and innocence and is thus very relevant to the students’ situation as they prepare to leave for jobs in companies around the world. They captured its essence and moods perfectly.
The ballet comes in a series of dances. ‘Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair’ immediately establishes the folksy feel as six men dream of their Jeanie, who wanders through the scene. The lead, Francesco Venturi, stood out showing great control.
Everyone will have their favourite song and dance. ‘Molly! Do You Love Me?’ is a delightfully, gently comic duet. George Edwards was the joker who only has eyes for Tilly Wightman. She pretends she’s not interested, even pushing him away, but you just know she loves him really. When she slaps him on the face, his heart simply flutters even more. Comedy, especially gentle comedy, can be difficult for any dancer, but the couple judged it superbly.
I also enjoyed ‘Dancing on the River’, a joyous folksy ensemble section in which the choreography draws on various folk dances and genres including the hornpipe, country dancing and square dance. But for tugging at the heartstrings, it has to be ‘Beautiful Dreamer’, a dance that emphasises being defenceless and vulnerable. Jack Easton and Ishan Mahabir-Stokes showed all that in the most loving, tender and caring of duets.
The important role still played in ballet by the nineteenth-century classics was emphasised by the performance opening with Act III of Raymonda. Performed under the chandeliers and hanging Russian Orthodox images of designer Barry Kay’s sumptuous castle hall, its series of divertissements gave students from across the Upper School plenty of chance to show their admirable character ensemble work. It’s the classical variations and big pas de deux that are its highlights, though.
In the Grand pas de deux, Takumi Miyake thrilled everyone and won himself plenty of admirers with his soaring jumps and soft landings, some fast but beautifully controlled turns, and flying across the stage when needed. And he looked like he was lapping up every moment. Despite not being the tallest, he’s no mean partner either. His Raymonda, a serious-looking Madison Penney also did well with her difficult solo.
Miyake is not Royal Ballet bound, however, but off to American Ballet Theatre’s Studio Company, usually a stepping stone into the main ensemble. A full list of student destinations and awards can be found here.
Elsewhere among the women, Frieda Kaden and Chaeyeon Kang in particular showed lovely control and expression in their variations, and I enjoyed the pas de trois of Liya Fan, Isabella Shaker and Jessica Templeton. But as it so often seemed to be throughout the performance, it was the men who took the eye. The pas de quatre quartet of Aiden Buss, Jack Easton, Luc Foskett and Mason King all showed some neat batterie and successful double-tours, although perhaps a little more back strength is still called for. It will surely come.
Wayne McGregor’s PreSentinent may now be twenty years old but it still brims with originality. It just doesn’t stop. The Pre-professional Year students captured well its powerful athleticism, the ballet’s flow of movement just seeming to course through their bodies. There was sharpness of attack and lots of directed energy wherever you looked. Perhaps it was the context of the performance and the big career step the dancers are about to take, but I couldn’t help reading a bit of restlessness and apprehension into things too.
Miyake was outstanding again, both in his solo and a delicious pas de deux with Scarlett Harvey. It’s easy to see why they were the male and female winners of The Dame Ninette de Valois London Ballet Circle Award for the most outstanding graduate. PreSentinent also sees some interesting and all-too-brief female pairings, still a rarity despite all-male duets now being commonplace. You do have to wonder why.
In contrast, Joseph Toonga’s Moments told us little and did not really show off the 2nd Year students’ talents. It’s full of running around and setting up the sort of throbbing mass of vaguely-in-unison bodies seen so much contemporary dance at the moment. It failed to engage or communicate much either, although extensions and pleasing lines in the occasional solo revealed the dancers’ ballet training. Other solos hinted at fighting or railing against something.
A ray of sunshine to match the weather outside came with Mikaela Polley’s Jubilation, which featured no fewer than 76 dancers from all years at White Lodge. It starts with each year group in their own section before the groups start to mingle and the structure gets increasingly complex. It is quite formal but very neatly arranged, not only showing each group of students off to their best but allowing us to see individuals.
Completing the programme, was the Pas de douze from Sir Frederick Ashton’s Swan Lake, danced by the Upper School 1st Years; and Eccentric Pulses by Upper School 2nd Year student Guillem Cabrera Espinach, danced by classmates Caspar Lench and Alexandra Manuel. The latter, devised for the Ursula Moreton Emerging Choreographer performances, is a thoughtful duet that explores a relationship and the love shared by two people, but who end up destroying one another. The only regret was that it seemed to be danced so far upstage.
As Powney observed, the 2021-22 Pre-professional Year students have been affected by Covid restrictions throughout their time at the Upper School. It is a tribute to their fortitude they have come through and can still show such talent. It was a super afternoon, but you really do have to pinch yourself to remind yourself that they are all still in their late-teens.