From the Bolshoi to Ed Balls
Russia’s famous dancers and Strictly’s unlikely star both provided exquisite entertainment, says Mark Monahan
The most consistently impressive dance troupe to grace a stage in Britain in 2016 was not from these shores. Returning to Covent Garden after a three-year absence, the Bolshoi staged a three-week season of ballets as good as those they performed in 2007, under the great Alexei Ratmansky.
It was a banquet of great variety – from 19th-century classics to Jean- Christophe Maillot’s knee-weakeningly steamy The Taming of the Shrew – and the dancing consistently had the bravura and attack for which the Bolshoi is famous.
Watching our own Royal Ballet perform on the same stage has been a more mixed experience. Thanks largely, I suspect, to the input of ballet master Christopher Carr, the Royal delivered delectable renderings of Frederick Ashton’s Rhapsody, The Two Pigeons and La Fille mal gardée. It also gave producer Peter Wright’s gorgeous Giselle a loving revival. (Let’s forget the October revival of MacMillan’s barmy, best-left-in-mothballs melodrama Anastasia – you can’t win ’em all.) What’s more, in young principal Francesca Hayward, it has a dancer who already looks set to become one of
BEST OF 2016
the all-time greats. As an engine-room for new pieces, however, the Royal is failing. No one in its high command seems willing to ever say “Sorry, but that really isn’t working” to the choreographers it commissions: the impression is that they’re simply assigned a huge wad of cash, left to their own devices and told, “If you make it, we’ll stage it.” In fairness, Christopher Wheeldon tried and failed honourably with his elegant but flawed portrait of a scandal, Strapless. But Wayne McGregor, the Royal’s resident choreographer continues to serve up sexless, slender pieces of limited entertainment value (or, I suspect, shelf-life), while Liam Scarlett’s Frankenstein was an ego-drenched, money-burning embarrassment. Still, there are chinks of hope, not least that the Royal Ballet will next year stage its first commission from Canadian choreographer Crystal Pite. In the spring, her Sadler’s Wells collaboration with Jonathon Young, Betroffenheit, proved a startling reaction to reallife tragedy (the death of Young’s daughter) while, at the Edinburgh Festival, Scottish Ballet’s revival of her 2009 study of swarm behaviour, Emergence, showed her deploying a full classical ballet company to electrifying effect. As for the Royal Ballet’s Birmingham-based sister company, BRB, its very enjoyable Shakespeare
Frankenstein, Covent Garden The least enjoyable fullevening work I have ever seen the Royal Ballet perform – a disgraceful waste of money and talent
Triple Bill was followed at Sadler’s Wells by David Bintley’s flat new version of The Tempest. Nor, in fact, did Scottish Ballet have it all their own way: a well-intentioned new Swan Lake by David Dawson drained the famous fairy tale of almost all its magic.
Those other tireless tourers, English National Ballet, danced beautifully in 2016, but also with mixed results. While their account of the potty pirate romp Le Corsaire effervesced with life, I couldn’t share others’ admiration for Akram Khan’s narratively muddled Giselle.
Khan’s triumph lay, rather, in his magical Karthika Nair adaptation Until the Lions, at the Roundhouse. While we’re in the contemporary arena, a special mention must go to the Rambert company who, in the autumn alone, gave Londoners three new pieces (in Contemporaries), Mark Baldwin’s beautiful, gently Mark Morris-y Haydn fantasia The Creation, and a revival of its 2014 paean to the great Merce Cunningham, Event.
The last of these took place at Phillips the auctioneers, in Berkeley Square, a reminder that it’s often the more unexpected sights that lodge most firmly in the mind. One such was Jane Horrocks’s delightful, intensely personal songand-dance tour of her teenage years at the Young Vic; and let’s not forget Ed Balls on Strictly Come Dancing.
Will he be joining the Bolshoi any time soon? No, he won’t. But as a reminder that dance is about one thing above all else – entertainment – the former shadow chancellor could hardly have scored more highly.
En pointe: Bolshoi dancers Olga Smirnova and Artemy Belyakov in