Last week I attended a dance performance in person for the first time since March last year. If you’d asked me to choose the ideal show for the occasion, I’d have probably picked something with marquee names and lavish costumes — a classical ballet gala, or maybe one of Matthew Bourne’s glittering productions. As it happens, I watched teenagers in bomber jackets snarl at each other in between dance-offs — and actually, it was just the ticket. Mental health issues among teens have rocketed during the pandemic, and this crew, from National Youth Dance Company, drive the point home with a hard-nosed production that doesn’t ask so much as command us to acknowledge their angst. It’s fiery, dynamic and deeply felt. I’m only a little embarrassed to admit that I leaked a few tears over their passion.
Every year NYDC recruits a fresh group of adolescent dancers and pairs them with a Sadler’s Wells associate artist who oversees their professional debut. For 2021 it’s Alesandra Seutin at the helm, a Brussels-based choreographer known for combining voice and movement on stage. In Speak Volumes, song, dance, rap and spoken word mingle against an electro backbeat, the ensemble toggling between them with a brisk, nervy energy, no time to waste. There are a few theatrical sketches too — including a game of Simon Says that lays bare the tyranny of school, where everything from opinions to bathroom breaks are policed — but the horsepower is in the dancing, a swaggerific display of pumping chests and crotch-grabbing struts. Sometimes this hard stance reads like a shield against vulnerability, like in the hip-swaying second movement; mostly, though, it’s temper rendered physical, flashes of frustration, elation and desire sparking from fingertips. Seutin’s choreography is alive with steely maturity, but she also leaves room for the inanities of youth. A verse lamenting ‘the cold, stale chips in my mouth’, declared with total solemnity, had me grinning.
Over at Covent Garden, the Royal Ballet just wrapped up a mixed bill to celebrate its 90th anniversary. The company’s digital platform made it possible to catch a home broadcast when I couldn’t attend in person, a happy workaround in these lingering days of social distancing. The programme’s centrepiece is the final act of The Sleeping Beauty, a vehicle for sparkling character dances and one of ballet’s grandest pas de deux. This is the point in Marius Petipa’s already bloated spectacle when it drops all pretence of plot and yields to a parade of fairy-tale divertissements — beaming variations so confident in their own charms that they build in room for curtseys and applause after each one. Indulgent for sure, but this confection is bursting with sugar-sweet performances, especially Vadim Muntagirov’s leggy Prince Florimund, a fetching companion for Marianela Nunez’s gracious Princess Aurora.
Ahead of this big bang is a series of duets from resident dancemakers recent and past. Beatriz Stix-Brunell — in one of her last performances before she leaves the Royal for Stanford University — and Reece Clarke rivet in the pas de deux from Christopher Wheeldon’s After the Rain, offering soft, fluid partnering that revels in its own gentle equilibrium. Limbs ripple and torsos graze; the pair move like a single organism, their postures ever in sync.
The romance is more bittersweet in Kenneth MacMillan’s Winter Dreams as Lauren Morera and Ryoichi Hirano bid adieu to the road not taken. Dashing into each other’s arms, they exude an anguish that hurts oh so good. Spirits rise in Frederick Ashton’s Voices of Spring, petals bursting from Anna Rose O’Sullivan’s hands, then soften in Wayne McGregor’s Morgen, a soulful meditation from a choreographer often inspired by technology and hard calculations. Deep breaths exhale into long, luxurious lines in this melty interpretation of a John Henry Mackay poem. We close on a glorious image: Yasmine Naghdi and Joseph Sissens seated, limbs entwined, basking in ‘the muted silence of happiness’.
The bill’s two premières — Anemoi from the Royal’s own Valentino Zucchetti and Agnus Dei from Michael Nunn and William Trevitt — feel tacked on for the sake of something new, though there are lovely features to each. With its feathery phrasing and gusts of speedy footwork, the former shines a chipper light on some of the younger company members, even if the groupwork is uneven. As the only film on the bill, Agnus Dei is the odd man out, but it stands its ground against the live acts with handsome choreography by Arthur Pita (performed here by Leo Dixon) and some eye-catching stage magic in its final moments.
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