The dance year in review

SeeingDance editor David Mead takes a personal look back at dance in 2015

It was not without highlights, but looking back over 2015, it seems more a solid year for dance rather than a spectacular one.

I don’t get to see much of The Royal Ballet, but what I have seen has not been particularly inspiring. As much as I like Wayne McGregor’s movement vocabulary, it would be nice to see him try something a little different. It would also be nice to see a half-decent new, full-length story ballet that does not depend on whizzy sets and designs for impact. It’s no coincidence that the best new home-produced ballet around was Annabelle Lopez Ochoa and Nancy Meckler’s A Streetcar Named Desire for Scottish Ballet. Steps and a decent story, people; steps and story.

Relying on sets and design for the wow factor is creeping into contemporary dance too, Wayne McGregor’s Tree of Codes being the best example. There were some great moments, but they were dwarfed by everything going on around them. This also included what for some lighting designers seems to be becoming the near-obligatory ‘let’s shine a light directly at the audience’ moment. Still, I suppose blinding everyone or make them put hands in front of eyes is one way of disguising choreography.

English National Ballet goes from strength to strength under Tamara Rojo’s dynamic leadership. Her appointment caused some controversy, but there can be no doubt that she has breathed life into the company. Apart from innovative programming such as Lest We Forget (which in a brave move has even been seen outside London), Rojo appears happy to give young dancers a chance to shine in lead roles. There’s much to admire at the ENB School too, where annual performances and showcases suggest Samira Saidi is doing a cracking job.

Tamara Rojo and Akram Khan in Khan's Dust from English National Ballet's Lest We ForgetPhoto ASH
Tamara Rojo and Akram Khan in Khan’s Dust from English National Ballet’s Lest We Forget
Photo ASH

Away from London, it seems to have become fashionable to knock Birmingham Royal Ballet. It probably doesn’t help that they are not seen in London that much (and will be even less in 2016 as they have lost their annual Coliseum week as part of the machinations at English National Opera), but it sometimes feels like some have never really forgiven them for moving to the city twenty-five years ago. True, there did seem to be a bit of a dip when David Bintley split his time between the company and the National Ballet of Japan, but now that’s come to an end there’s no doubt things have improved. The company had no new full-length ballet in 2014-5, but audiences were treated to Bintley’s fascinating treatise on the beginnings of ballet in The King Dances (also the subject of an excellent TV documentary fronted by himself), Sir Peter Wright’s top-notch Swan Lake (in which Céline Gittens gave a fascinatingly alluring interpretation of Odette/Odile to Tyrone Singleton’s noble Siegfried), and a revival of Ashton’s Engima Variations, a tricky ballet to get right, but that was carried off near perfectly.

Céline Gittens as Odette and Tyrone Singleton as Prince Siegfried in Birmingham Royal Ballet's Swan LakePhoto Roy Smiljanic
Céline Gittens as Odette and Tyrone Singleton as Prince Siegfried in Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Swan Lake
Photo Roy Smiljanic

Up in Leeds, Northern Ballet continue to do a sterling job under David Nixon, who should be congratulated for extending the already heavy touring schedule to include some of the slightly smaller regional theatres, such as Leicester’s Curve.

There was much ballet to admire in Europe, my personal highlight of the year undoubtedly being the all-Cranko quadruple bill in Stuttgart, and especially the delicious Concerto for Flute and Harp. A male ballet-blanc, it’s full of exciting, complex choreography. It sparkled and fizzed like the best champagne. And that was on top of a wonderful Onegin with Friedemann Vogel as Onegin and Alicia Amatriain as Tatiana.

Elsewhere, the Staatsballett Berlin showed what a versatile company they are in three very different programmes in four days in October. I couldn’t help feeling this was a company looking for a sense of direction, though. It will be interesting to see where Nacho Duato takes it, assuming he is allowed do so, for there are already grumblings.

Less impressive was a programme of new works in the same month by New York City Ballet. Apart from Justin Peck’s New Blood, short pieces by upcoming choreographer/dancers were largely uninspiring. Some of them also suffered from the designers seeming to be given rather too much of a free hand. American ballet and modern dance seems so very conservative when compared to the rest of the world. Perhaps it’s just a reflection of audience preferences, perhaps it’s something to do with the funding system and choreographers and companies feeling they can’t take a chance. The NYCB evening was saved by Kim Brandstrup’s Jeux, although I sensed it was a ‘marmite ballet’ for audiences; you loved it or hated it with no in-between.

Brenna Monroe-Cook as Empress Carlota in CarlotaPhoto Beatriz Schiller
Brenna Monroe-Cook as Empress Carlota in Carlota
Photo Beatriz Schiller

Also in New York, at the Limon Festival, Carlota proved to be one of the most striking works of the year. In silence, save the humming of the air conditioning, which actually added to the tension, it tells the story of the overthrow and eventual execution of Emperor Maximillian of Mexico as seen through the memories of his wife, the Carlota of the title. Danced very stylistically with echoes of German Expressionism, it was fascinating. The rest of the works looked very dated, however. The student ensembles did manage to inject some life into the dance in their performances, but the choreography has not aged well.

When it comes to more contemporary ballet, two more German companies took the eye. I was seriously impressed by Leipzig Ballet during their brief visit to the Taipei as part of the Taiwan International Festival of the Arts. Artistic director, Mario Schroder’s Wild Butterflies (狂放的野蝶) for the city’s Century Contemporary Dance Company (世紀當代舞團) was also one of the best TIFA collaborations for many years.

In August, Ballet am Rhein from Dusseldorf, wowed audiences at the Edinburgh International Festival in Martin Schläpfer’s Seven. It’s a ballet packed with interesting ideas and possible meanings, and I for one would love to catch it again.

Back home, the established contemporary companies continue to produce interesting and engaging new works. Brandstrup was on top form again with Transfigured Night for Rambert Dance Company, while Martin Lawrance’s Burning for Richard Alston Dance Company is surely his best yet; a dramatic exploration of ‘Lisztomania’ and the composer’s long-term affair with the young, married Countess, Marie d’Agoult, with both Liam Riddick and Nancy Nerantzi outstanding in the lead roles.

Miguel Altunaga and Simone Damberg Wurtz in Kim Brandstrup's Transfigured NightPhoto Johan Persson
Miguel Altunaga and Simone Damberg Wurtz in Kim Brandstrup’s Transfigured Night
Photo Johan Persson

Going back to criticising, and on the subject of Rambert, it seems also to have become de rigeur to take a pot shot at Christopher Bruce’s Rooster. It remains a brilliantly upbeat, foot-tapping end to the evening; and it can still sell a show on its own. Maybe that’s the problem. It’s popular; dance pop-art, if you like, and we can’t have that, can we.

Up in Edinburgh, the dance programme was packed with circus-inspired works. I adored Gandini Juggling’s 4×4 Ephemeral Architectures, a fun bringing together of ballet and juggling. It’s the sort of thing you think can’t possibly work. But it did, and how!

The standard of dance on the Fringe has soared in recent years and there was plenty to admire elsewhere. For various reasons I had never seen 2FacedDance, but thoroughly enjoyed Tamsin Fitzgerald’s often athletic Lucid Grounds. Humour and dance mixed wonderfully in Correction by VerTeDance from Prague, a work in which the dancers never move their feet. They can’t because their shoes are fixed to the floor. The hour whizzed past.

If a show strikes as being something special at 10am, then it definitely is. Contemporary? by Lithuanian trio Agne Ramanauskaite, Paulius Tamole and Mantas Stabacinskas is a wonderfully self-ironic look at contemporary dance in which the threesome discuss the process of dance-making and its cliché movements, phrases and costumes. In among the in-jokes and fun was some great dance. It was an absolute hoot, the only shame being that it all happened in front of an audience that never reached double figures.

Caroline Bowditch in Falling in Love with FridaPhoto Anthony Hopwood
Caroline Bowditch in Falling in Love with Frida
Photo Anthony Hopwood

There were plenty of interesting Scottish contributions. Best by far was Caroline Bowditch’s hugely entertaining and totally absorbing Falling in Love with Frida that explores the life, loves and legacy of artist Frida Kahlo, but which is as much the story of Bowditch herself. Through text and dance, it’s a story of the heart, told from the heart and with a considerable amount of often self-deprecating good humour. Other Scottish offerings tended to cause mixed feelings, some excellent performances not always matched by the choreography. It should be noted, though, that they all got standing ovations, but maybe that’s what comes from ‘playing at home.’

Personal awards for 2015:

Best classical ballet performances: Stuttgart Ballet’s Alles Cranko programme, especially Concerto for Flute and Harp and Initials R.B.M.E.

Best new classical ballet: Kim Brandstrup’s Jeux for New York City Ballet.

Best interpretation of a classical role: Céline Gittens’ Odette/Odile for Birmingham Royal Ballet; but a tight contest with Alicia Amatriain’s Tatiana and Fridemann Vogel’s Onegin in Stuttgart.

Best contemporary ballet: Martin Schläpfer’s Seven for Dusseldorf’s Ballett am Rhein, closely followed by Corrente II by Leipzig Ballet.

Best contemporary work: Burning by Martin Lawrance for Richard Alston Dance Company. Very special mentions here for 32 rue Vandenbranden by Peeping Tom; Correction by VerTeDance; 2015 Take Off (逃亡2015) by Sun Shier Dance Theatre (三十舞蹈劇場); Hell Groove (衝撞天堂) by Chen Tun-ju (陳韻如) for Cloud Gate 2 (雲門2); Pavement by Abraham.In.Motion; Yo Gee Ti by Compagnie Käfig; Falling in Love with Frida by Caroline Bowditch; and Borderline by Ramirez Wang.

Best individual performance in a contemporary work: Aakash Odedra in I Imagine; closely followed by Liam Riddick and Nancy Nerantzi as Liszt and Marie in Burning. A special mention too for Al Seed in Oog. I found the work difficult but it was a remarkable one-man tour de force.

Most fun: Contemporary? by Agne Ramanauskaite, Paulius Tamole and Mantas Stabačinskas. I’m still smiling months later!

Best festival: Not Edinburgh, but a new kid on the block: the Colours International Dance Festival in Stuttgart. Interesting, vibrant, fun, and yes, colourful. Roll on the next one in 2017!

The ‘Why bother’ Award: Give Me a Reason to Live by Claire Cunningham; self-indulgent nothingness and just how I felt by the end. Not so special mentions also for Ann Van den Broek’s The Red Piece, which managed to hold the interest for all of five minutes; the tedious, seen-it-before Soft virtuosity, still humid, on the edge by Marie Chouinard; and Fold by Dance Kho, an Edinburgh morning show when staying bed was definitely the better option.

The evening that reached out unexpectedly: HT Chen & Dancers (陳學同舞蹈團) of New York City in South of Gold Mountain (金山以南). Not the best choreography or performance of the year, but still truly absorbing as it looked at the experiences of Chinese settlers in the American South post World War II.

The nice surprise of the year: Discovering Ballet Theatre UK, a small company based in Hinckley, Leicestershire, telling stories through classical ballet. Their Snow Queen was a delight especially.