The 2017–18 season was dominated by #MeToo and the fight against sexual misconduct. In dance, the most publicised was New York City Ballet’s ballet master Peter Martins, who resigned in January 2018 following accusations of sexual harassment; an investigation later found that the allegations were not corroborated.
#MeToo became part of a wider questioning of abuse of power that is not simply split along gender lines, and so it was with Martins’ case, as he was also accused of physical and verbal abuse. British companies have not seen sexual misconduct allegations, but one has been caught up in the debate about power.
In a report in The Times, sources accused English National Ballet of verbal abuse and a hostile working environment. Artistic director Tamara Rojo – celebrated as a dancer and praised for transforming ENB – came under fire for her relationship with principal dancer Isaac Hernández and for creating a difficult working culture. There were claims that dancers were leaving in droves because of this environment. Linked or not, principals Cesar Corrales, Aaron Robison and Laurretta Summerscales all left at the end of the 2017–18 season. Rojo has defended her relationship with Hernández in interviews, while saying that she ‘didn’t recognise’ her company in some of the claims. ENB stated that it has made improvements in medical provisions and lines of reporting, while the Arts Council – which provides more than £6m funding to ENB each year – said it was satisfied that ‘ENB has appropriate policies and processes in place to handle grievances, complaints and conflicts of interest’.
Perhaps this year’s trials and tribulations will finally lead to change. Scottish Ballet’s CEO and artistic director, Christopher Hampson, wrote a thoughtful piece on this topic, saying: ‘When you are in a position of power and influence, it isn’t simply a question of whether you did or you didn’t … The questions should be: how do others perceive you and how does your leadership affect them?’
The dance world said goodbye to Dame Gillian Lynne in July 2018. After a classical career at Sadler’s Wells Ballet, she later moved to dance, then choreograph, in the West End. Her most famous work is for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats, and Lynne also had a hand in productions including Phantom of the Opera, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (2002) and, in a return to classical ballet, a reinterpretation of Robert Helpmann’s Miracle in the Gorbals for Birmingham Royal Ballet in 2014. Lloyd Webber renamed the New London Theatre, the original home of Cats, after Lynne shortly before her death.
Dancer and choreographer Scott Ambler, a founding member of New Adventures, died unexpectedly in March. Having trained at Rambert and worked with companies including DV8, Ambler went on to create roles in early New Adventures pieces, while later in his career he worked on West End projects, including Chariots of Fire and Enron. Ambler will be fondly remembered as the first Prince in Matthew Bourne’s groundbreaking Swan Lake in 1995.
There were two big vacancies. Mark Baldwin left his post as artistic director at Rambert at the end of the season, having led the company since 2002. David Bintley announced in March 2018 that he was stepping down as artistic director of Birmingham Royal Ballet after the 2018–19 season, following almost a quarter of a century at the helm. The search for his successor began in July.
TOURS AND FESTIVALS
August started with the Opera House stage filled by the Mariinsky Ballet, which presented a selection that could be roughly split into white and red. The former comprised Swan Lake (whose famously uniform swans is the standard for which all other companies strive) and La Bayadère. The ‘red’ soubrette roles included Don Quixote and the high-camp Carmen Suite, accompanied by another heroine in red, Anna Karenina. There was also Wayne McGregor’s modern classic Infra (with even more exaggerated hyperextensions) and imperial glamour in the Paquita grand pas.
The 2017 Edinburgh Festival had its usual diverse showing, including Blue Boy Entertainment’s Olivier-nominated Blak Whyte Gray, National Dance Company Wales’s Folk by Caroline Finn and a reworking of King Lear from John Scott Dance featuring 82-year-old former Merce Cunningham Dance Company member Valda Setterfield. There were two notable all-male works; while Lady Macbeth: Unsex Me Here was a bold exploration of the antiheroine, Chicos Mambo’s Tutu: Dance in all its Glory was a disappointingly uninventive look at dance genres.
The Birmingham International Dance Festival in June 2018 featured established groups, including Birmingham Royal Ballet and Company Wayne McGregor, but also some interesting site-specific works, such as Satchie Noro and Silvain Ohl’s ode to human and machine, Origami. Woyzeck featured 100 local dancers and performers in ‘a tale of woes and peas’. Perhaps most memorable, though, was the sight of Compagnie Didier Theron in pink inflatable suits dancing through England’s second city for Air.
A more recent tradition is dance companies appearing at music festivals. Latitude has been strong on this front with its Sadler’s Wells partnership and in summer 2018 welcomed acts including National Youth Dance Company and Humanhood, while there was an excerpt of ZooNation’s Sylvia, a musical about Sylvia Pankhurst that opens at the Old Vic in September. BalletBoyz and Phoenix Dance Theatre were among other appearances.
It was an important year for the Royal Ballet – it has finally replaced its long-complained-about Swan Lake with a new production by Liam Scarlett. Aside from the change from notorious tatty skirts to pancake tutus for the swans, there were lovely new sets and other new costumes (mostly gorgeous, even if some still somewhat resembled ornate curtains). Scarlett stuck close to the Peptipa and Ivanov text and the revisions by Sir Frederick Ashton, but created a new pas de trois for Act I and new character dances. The quietly tragic tone of the ending, different to most other companies’ versions, also stood out. Marianela Nuñez and Vadim Muntagirov possessed the solid technique required of their roles but Nuñez in particular was exquisite in her artistry.
Another important event was the 25th anniversary of the death of Sir Kenneth MacMillan, one of Britain’s most important choreographers. The company staged a series of performances to mark this occasion and, in a spirit of collaboration, invited other British classical companies for several mixed programmes. Elite Syncopations was a highlight with its mix of companies and all had a sense of playfulness in this ragtime crowd-pleaser. Precious Adams (English National Ballet) was particularly memorable, while Yasmine Naghdi was delightful in the lead role so famously danced by Darcey Bussell.
The MacMillan celebrations included the controversial Judas Tree, but its depiction of graphic sexual violence still left many viewers cold, as well as Jeux, a short piece by Wayne Eagling inspired by MacMillan’s Nijinsky recreation. The full-length ballets that MacMillan was equally famous for were not forgotten either, and Manon was revived later in the season. Francesca Hayward, with a few days’ notice, replaced an injured Laura Morera on opening night and presented a marvellous portrayal unlike others.
Another important occasion was the centenary of the birth of composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein. It was a landmark celebrated worldwide, with the Royal Ballet presenting two new works. Much of the publicity centred on Corybantic Games, chiefly because this is where much of the money must have gone: Christopher Wheeldon is very much in demand and costumes were made by high fashion house Erdem (think classy lingerie). And very nice it was, too. The first part comprised only men, like warriors, and they had a vibrancy that the Royal male corps at times lacks, while the women in the middle section were lyrical and elegant, resembling Greek muses.
But it was Wayne McGregor’s Yugen that was the better received. The music was more uplifting than McGregor’s usual choices and the choreography reflected that, moving away from hyperextended shapes. Highlights included a mesmerising sequence of five men in intertwining lifts and a tender male pas de deux. The revival of Scarlett’s Age of Anxiety paled in comparison; none of the characters felt sufficiently well-drawn to make a proper impact.
Amazingly, there was a third anniversary: Marianela Nuñez’s 20th year at the Royal Ballet. The company – where Nuñez has spent her entire career – celebrated with one of her signature roles: Giselle. And Nuñez was glorious, delicate and simply divine.
Elsewhere, the schedule was packed as usual. In a November 2017 bill, Twyla Tharp extended a 1973 piece to create The Illustrated ‘Farewell’ that showed Steven McRae and Sarah Lamb in their full virtuoso glory. Another new piece, Arthur Pita’s The Wind, was full of strong imagery but didn’t quite result in a consistent whole, even if Natalia Osipova, Thiago Soares and Edward Watson gave it everything. The return of Hofesh Shechter’s Untouchable remained fascinating, with the classically trained dancers in his crowd movements moving in a very different fashion from what would usually be expected.
There were revivals of Wheeldon’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and The Winter’s Tale, McGregor’s Obsidian Tear and Ashton’s cape-flinging melodrama Marguerite and Armand. There was a pleasing alternative Christmas outing in Ashton’s Sylvia; in an interesting strategy, the Royal Ballet commissioned Alexander Whitley to create a ‘response’ piece, Noumena, at Clore Studio Upstairs.
In another savvy move, the company (along with the National Ballet of Canada) left Covent Garden for the hip venue of Printworks for The Dreamers Ever Leave You by Robert Binet. It was billed as ‘immersive’, which sounded pretentious, but it took the dancers out of their comfort zones and gave the audience a chance to observe up close.
ENGLISH NATIONAL BALLET
The highlight of ENB’s year was Voices in America, which again showed artistic director Tamara Rojo’s eye for interesting programming and attracted rave reviews. It was also a huge coup to have secured William Forsythe to create his first work for a British ballet company in 20 years. Playlist (Track 1, 2) was a blast – understated ports de bras and petit allegro gave way to big jumps, speedy footwork and utter swagger from the 12 men, and the audience felt their joy. It was accompanied by a rework of Azure Barton’s surreal Fantastic Beings, plus two acquisitions: The Cage by Jerome Robbins and Forsythe’s Approximate Sonata 2016, which saw Alina Cojocaru back on the London stage after maternity leave. Her final pas de deux was a fine examination of artistic perfection.
As part of the Kenneth MacMillan celebrations, Song of the Earth joined the repertoire. Erina Takahashi was good in her Opera House performance but it was Rojo who made the role come to life in ENB’s Coliseum run, far outshining Joseph Caley and Aaron Robison.
This was accompanied by another acquisition, Frank Andersen’s La Sylphide. Jurgita Dronina (who joined this season as lead principal) and Isaac Hernández led the opening cast, but there was a sense that the company as a whole hadn’t quite mastered the Bournonville style yet.
La Sylphide was also performed alongside Roland Petit’s Le Jeune Homme et la Mort, a Marmite kind of ballet, but guest superstar Ivan Vasiliev made it look like it was created on him.
During the season, Akram Khan’s award-winning Giselle made a return (and worldwide cinema showings), Rudolf Nureyev’s Romeo and Juliet turned 40 and MacMillan’s sumptuous Sleeping Beauty came back. Cojocaru made her classical return as Aurora, one of her best roles, and was confident in the fiendish Rose Adagio and positively glowing in the final act, supported by an excellent Caley. James Streeter was a delicious Carabosse and, happily, was promoted at the end of the season. Rojo also achieved a ballet first by hiring Chase Johnsey, who identifies as gender fluid, to be part of the female corps.
IN THE REGIONS
In their own shows and as part of the Opera House collaboration, Birmingham Royal Ballet performed Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s Elite Syncopations and Concerto, but the men lacked pizzazz in the latter. In BRB’s own season, these were performed alongside the iconic Still Life at the Penguin Café by David Bintley. Still Life… was in a second programme with a revival of Michael Corder’s Le Baiser de la fée and Arcadia, which premiered earlier in 2017, by first artist Ruth Brill.
BRB stepped up in energy for its June 2018 run at Sadler’s Wells. The Polarity & Proximity programme featured Embrace by George Williamson as part of BRB’s Ballet Now scheme in partnership with Sadler’s Wells, which aims to mentor emerging choreographers to create larger-scale work. Williamson is still relatively new to the game and Embrace showed a talent for intimate duets. The bill also included Kin by Alexander Whitley and a modern classic, Twyla Tharp’s In The Upper Room, in which Céline Gittens was a star.
Opening the season with the return of Aladdin, the classics were taken care of by The Nutcracker, Sleeping Beauty and, fittingly, MacMillan’s celebrated Romeo and Juliet.
Following 2017’s poorly received The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, Northern Ballet had more of a hit in The Little Mermaid by artistic director David Nixon. There was inventive, fluid choreography for the underwater world and the production mostly avoided the saccharine Disney path.
Northern’s own MacMillan programme featured Concerto, Las Hermanas and Gloria – the first time the company has performed MacMillan and a rare opportunity for audiences outside the capital to see these works. The pieces differed significantly in tone, and it was only Concerto that exposed a relative lack of experience in neoclassical choreography. As a narrative-led troupe, Northern unsurprisingly presented a fine version of Las Hermanas, with their taut movements conveying the sense of repression in the household. The company embodied the sense of loss in the powerful First World War-inspired Gloria and was even more impressive when they performed this at the Opera House.
Cathy Marston’s Jane Eyre was revived – a lovely production but one that anyone unfamiliar with the book may have trouble keeping up with. Marston had a good year; separately, she created the vivid and charming The Suit for Ballet Black.
In Scottish Ballet’s Stravinsky double bill, one half was its contribution to the MacMillan celebrations: the rarely performed Le Baiser de la fée from 1960, with new designs by Gary Harris. It was hard to escape the fact that it wasn’t vintage MacMillan and the whole thing looked rather flat and unnecessarily dark. It was shown alongside a revival of Christopher Hampson’s Rite of Spring.
Scottish Ballet, the only company outside New Adventures to present Matthew Bourne’s Highland Fling, fittingly toured it to remote regions of Scotland. Bourne’s brand of physical-comedy-cum-balletic-contemporary-dance did not faze the company and found natural interpreters in Christopher Harrison and Sophie Martin. For the tour, Scottish Ballet even built a mini-theatre that could be set up within sports halls and leisure centres.
In May 2018, Rambert unveiled its first full-length work since 1979: Life is a Dream by Kim Brandstrup. The dancers attacked the sinewy movements and off-centre turns with gusto, but the multiple characters and blurring of dreams and reality did not a clear narrative make – it was all very Lynchian.
At the start of the season, Rambert presented Andonis Foniadakis’ Symbiosis – a slick, if predictable, piece about the ebb and flow of city life. Another new commission was Goat by Ben Duke that was partly inspired by Nina Simone and used a collection of her songs. There was an abundance of ideas – dancers talking, fragments of Simone’s life intertwined with the dancers’ own, a ritual, a send-up of contemporary dance – and it was confusing but entertaining.
Rambert toured two pieces premiered in the 2017–18 season: Aletta Collins’ The days run away like wild horses and a guest appearance of Julie Cunningham & Company’s To Be Me (separately, Cunningham also had a new production at the Barbican: Sarah Kane’s Crave; one to watch for those missing Merce Cunningham style). These were performed alongside Christopher Bruce’s 1981 classic Ghost Dances and Itzik Galili’s 2007 party piece A Linha Curva. In a similar vein to Nederlands Dans Theater 2, Rambert established a ‘youth wing’. Rambert2 will embark on its first tour in autumn 2018.
Sir Matthew Bourne’s New Adventures busied itself with touring Cinderella. Continuing the wartime theme, it presented three new works at each location of the Imperial War Museums, collaborating with elderly people and schoolchildren locally.
Sadler’s Wells celebrated 15 years of both the Flamenco Festival and Breakin’ Convention, marking a proud tradition of showing dance of all types. The Flamenco Festival hosted no fewer than seven productions. Breakin’ Convention partnered jazz collective Jazz re:freshed to bring 15 musicians to Sadler’s Wells to accompany five specially commissioned works.
Hofesh Shechter’s company bookended its season at Sadler’s Wells with Grand Finale. It featured ten dancers, six musicians and continued Shechter’s approach of combining dance with theatre and live gig elements. Company Wayne McGregor’s Autobiography, inspired by McGregor’s own genetic code, also had two runs. There were 23 sections with their own theme, and the sequence was randomly selected for each performance so no two shows were the same – it doesn’t get more McGregor than that. But not everything was typical. McGregor’s recognisable style was there, all athletic, angular shapes amid walks and runs, but some classical elements – pirouettes with feet in retiré, attitudes derrière – suggested a softening of style. It was a compelling vocabulary, if you didn’t try to read too much into the programme notes.
Retired legend Carlos Acosta returned to the stage (albeit in a cameo capacity) in September 2017 with Acosta Danza and the young dancers showed real promise. BalletBoyz, now evolved from Michael Nunn and William Trevitt to comprise a line-up of younger male dancers, explored the concept of balance in Fourteen Days. Always savvy marketers, for this bill Nunn and Trevitt commissioned four choreographers to create four works, accompanied by new scores, in less than two weeks. Christopher Wheeldon’s Us stood out, although Javier de Frutos’ use of a seesaw was memorable and fun. These were performed alongside a revival of Russell Maliphant’s beautiful Fallen.
Richard Alston, a pioneer of British contemporary dance, celebrated 50 years as a choreographer with Mid Century Modern, matching a new work, Cut and Run, with some older pieces. Cloud Gate Theatre of Taiwan premiered Formosa, which tackled Taiwan’s history. Dresden’s Semperoper Ballett chose to show its contemporary side in its Sadler’s Wells debut with a William Forsythe programme, including the always stunning In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated. Neue Suite was a series of conventional but never traditional duets, while the sharp lines and shadowy shapes in Enemy in the Figure made it an evening to remember.
Other visiting companies included Lyon Opera Ballet, which asked Lucinda Childs, Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker and Maguy Marin to create something to the same Beethoven piece, Trois Grandes Fugues; Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch presented the Rome-inspired Viktor; and Nederlands Dans Theater. The high point of NDT’s London season was Crystal Pite’s The Statement and its dancers rose to Pite’s challenging choreography in this story of political manoeuvres.
One highlight at Sadler’s Wells was Akram Khan’s Xenos. Honouring Indians who fought in the First World War, Xenos was a supremely intense hour-long examination of the body in battle and in agony. It was his final solo performance and Khan will be sorely missed as a dancer.