Feature: Looking back on 2014

Monday 29 December 2014 by Lise Smith

Tamara Rojo & Akram Khan in his 'Dust' for English National Ballet's Lest We Forget programme at the Barbican. Photo: Bettina Strenske

With new work for English National Ballet, guest artistic directorship of the National Youth Dance Company and a revival of his 2006 collaboration with Sylvie Guillem – Sacred Monsters , Akram Khan features prominently in Lise Smith’s highlights of the year…

Sadler’s Wells welcomed the return of Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch in February with the poignantly-playful 1980 – A Piece by Pina Bausch. An immersive work that socks the viewer on arrival with the aroma of grass from the lushly-turfed stage, 1980 is a sensitive meditation on love and loss that is as uplifting as it is tender, and fills every minute of its nearly four hours with picnics, party tricks, parades and Pina’s trademark processions. Long-time Bausch fans and newcomers alike found the work utterly absorbing and beautifully bittersweet.

Also boasting an outdoor-themed set, Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan replaced the front stalls at Sadler’s Wells with a large lotus pond for Nine Songs. The graceful, poetic work was ethereal as a dream (and in places just as perplexing); the final sequence, in which the cast creates an onstage river made up of hundreds of candles in remembrance of fallen ancestors, lingers long in the memory.

With David Bintley’s version of Prince of the Pagodas, Birmingham Royal Ballet took up the challenge of making a ballet about a princess who falls in love with a salamander anything other than an awkward mess. The story, transferred to imperial Japan, is still a little odd around the edges, but Momoko Hirata in winsome form and excellent ensemble work from the whole company made this the most delightful trip to Pagoda-land yet.

Following a successful first year under the directorship of Jasmin Vardimon, the National Youth Dance Company returned with a brace of works made with Akram Khan at the helm. Andrej Petrovic’s The Rashomon Effect was a fine piece of collaborative work, but the NYDC second years’ powerful restaging of Khan’s own Vertical Road was outstanding. Perhaps the biggest surprise was how well the piece adapted to an outdoor presentation at Latitude Festival, without screens or stage lighting – thanks to the thrillingly taut performances of the eleven young dancers.

Also surprisingly adaptable to the outdoors was Khan’s new commission for English National Ballet, Dust. First performed as part of the Lest We Forget quadruple bill at the Barbican, Dust became the first ballet performance to be staged at the Glastonbury Festival – and worked remarkably well on the Pyramid Stage for a field full of slightly hungover Kasabian fans. A smart move for the company, the Glastonbury performance heralded artistic director Tamara Rojo’s vision for bringing ballet to the masses.

Wendy Houstoun’s solo Pact With Pointlessness paid moving tribute to the late Nigel Charnock. Like 1980 at the start of the year, the piece combines a poignant topic with a playful spirit; Houstoun’s willingness to expose herself with an absorbing combination of authenticity and absurdity fascinates and inspires. Funny and sad, daft and deep, Pact With Pointlessness defies categorisation but could by Houstoun’s best work to date.

NDT Nederlands Dans Theater made a rare appearance at Sadler’s Wells in July, and promptly divided critics with their revolving set, bare torsos and sexy interpretations of Magnetic Fields songs. Schmetterling, a down-and-dirty take on love and coupling, was the better of the evening’s two works.

With the autumn came the news that one of the biggest names in dance will be retiring next year – so a penultimate chance to see Sylvie Guillem with Akram Khan in a revival of the pair’s 2006 duet Sacred Monsters was more than usually welcome. The piece has aged beautifully; in addition to the quicksilver footwork and long-limbed extensions that were always a pleasure of the work, there’s an added layer of affectionate intimacy between the pair that radiates from the stage. Sacred Monsters was already beautiful; the relaxed chemistry between its two exceptional performers elevates the experience of watching to something rare and special.

Northern Light, a season of Nordic works brought choreographers from Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland and Iceland to Sadler’s Wells, in a varied programme that also varied in quality. Swedish Royal Ballet with Mats Ek’s Juliet and Romeo was the big-name draw, but perhaps the most interesting work of the season was Mette Ingvartsen’s The Artificial Nature Project , in which seven dancers manipulated several tons of silver tinsel into formations resembling fountains, snowflakes, sea spray and other natural phenomena. The idea was simple, but there was a gentle wonder in watching an inanimate pile of foil being so completely transformed over and over again.

This year’s most unusual venue for dance might be Alexandra Palace ice rink, which played host to Canadian quartet Le Patin Libre on their second visit to London. Vertical Influences is a plotless piece showcasing the troupe’s self-developed style of free skating that combines circus, b-boying, European-style dance theatre and their own pioneering “glide” that sees performers hurtle towards the audience at terrifying speeds. Contemporary, athletic and with nary a sequin in sight, Le Patin Libre are as cool as the ice on which they skate.

Photo: Bettina Strenske. Tamara Rojo & Akram Khan in Dust for English National Ballet’s Lest We Forget programme at the Barbican

Lise Smith is a dance manager and teacher who writes about dance for many publications, including Londonist, Dancetabs & Arts Professional. Find her on Twitter @lisekit

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