Review: BBC Young Dancer 2015 - The Final - Sadler's Wells & BBC2

Performance: 9 May 2015
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Monday 11 May 2015

BBC Young Dancer Final 2015 winner Connor Scott (centre) with (l to r) Zoe Ball, Clemency Burton-Hill, Wayne McGregor, Tamara Rojo, Darcey Bussell, Alistair Spalding, Carlos Acosta, Kenrick Sandy, Mavin Khoo, Matthew Bourne. Photo: BBC/Guy Levy

This year’s best young dancers are mainly male; or so it would appear from the first edition of this new televised contest that sets out to replicate the success of BBC Young Musician (with which it will alternate in future years). Similarly, we might assume that all the leading dance experts are men with Tamara Rojo the exception alongside a judging panel of five guys (Matthew Bourne, Mavin Khoo, Wayne McGregor, Kenrick ‘H20’ Sandy and Alistair Spalding). A 5-to-1 ratio of men to women amongst both contestants and judges appears unnecessarily unbalanced.

Category heats had been broadcast over the preceding four Fridays, from which three young men had won through in hip hop (Harry Barnes), contemporary (Jacob O’Connell) and ballet (Archie Sullivan). The judges then selected two more males as their “wild cards” (hip hop artist, Kieran Lai and Connor Scott, another contemporary dancer). This left the winner of the South Asian final, Vidya Patel, as the only woman left standing for the grand final.

It strikes me that – in the interests of diversity – judges might have created a better balance by at least putting through a wild card of either gender. The argument against this, of course, is that their decisions were based purely on merit; but this viewpoint could be used to justify a lack of diversity in any area of society. It could be argued that we have less women politicians, plumbers and police officers because more men win these jobs on merit. But, if this is no longer an acceptable argument in these arenas, why should it be OK for dance?

This is what I thought before the competition started. When it finished, I could see the judges’ dilemma since the two wild cards appeared to be more accomplished young dancers than the winners in their respective categories. In Connor Scott’s case this was so evident that – having not won the contemporary final (broadcast on BBC Four, 17 April) – he progressed to being a popular and well-deserved victor of the overall title.

Aged 17 (the event is for young dancers, aged 16 to 20), Connor hails from the North-East and developed his dance skills via the Dance City CAT scheme in Newcastle, moving on to the Rambert School. As a member of this year’s National Youth Dance Company, under the direction of Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Connor was returning to Sadler’s Wells just one month after performing in Frame[d] on the same stage.

The competition’s format required each of the competitors to dance three times, with a duet (or “battle” in the case of the two hip hop performers) sandwiched between two solos, the last of which was a specially commissioned premiere by an established choreographer. The high standard meant that each of the six dancers shone at different times during the event.

In the first round, three of the contestants choreographed their own solos and the best came in the first two pieces, beginning with Kieran’s The Tinman Needs a Heart, which wouldn’t have been out of place as a featured dance in ZooNation’s Groove on Down the Road. It enabled a close analysis of the dancer’s superb popping and locking skills and contained astute changes of pace. Connor’s Get Up showcased his beautiful lines and elegant pirouettes. Connor possesses a natural fluidity of movement and he laid claim to the title from the get-go.

In both these genres, the wild cards edged ahead of their category winners, partly on performance but largely because their choreography was more absorbing than either Jason Mabana’s Truth is Born of Arguments for Jacob and Harry Barnes’ self-choreographed What do I have to do to prove my love to you. Harry’s choreography seemed one-paced although his Merseyside roots were apparent in an immediate, easy rapport with the audience.

Vidya – a kathak dancer – started nervously, performing an expressive Tarana by Luna Poddar and Sujata Banerjee but she warmed to her task as the long solo unwound; the rigidity of her disciplined technique articulated in a form that was also soft and fluid, accentuated by her beautiful costume and larger-than-life eyes. Her solo suffered from the lack of live music, the recording drowning out the sound of her ghungroo (ankle bells).

Archie chose the variation in the 3rd Act pas de deux from Don Quixote, which was a much shorter burst of action than danced by any of his rivals. In one sense, the ballet and kathak dancers draw shorter straws since one mistake in their discipline is easily spotted by those who know the steps. With contemporary and hip hop dancers, mistakes are – by the freer, less strictly codified nature of their genres – far less obvious.

Four of the mid-section duets were danced with a non-competing partner, thus introducing an added complexity, especially when the partner seemed to be performing better than the contestant. Some dance forms are only performed largely “in hold” and it is not possible to imagine contestants dancing solos in a contest such as this; but, if the rules include duets, then why aren’t Latin or ballroom dancers eligible to compete? Even though one must praise the inclusion of South Asian dance, many other popular dance forms are excluded by the show’s categorisation structure.

At something over two hours, the show is too long and it would have been good to hear the judges opine; so, for my (licence fee) money, I’d argue for even more variety of genres, perhaps through dropping the specific categories; having just two dances per contestant (allowing them the choice of solos or duets, according to the discipline); less celebrity chat and more airing of opinion from the expert judges.

The best of the duets was Connor’s emotionally-charged, slow Blood Snow, danced with Meshach Henry, to the music of Sigur Rós; closely followed by Vidya’s kathak duet, Khoj – The Search, choreographed by Sujata Banerjee, and danced with Jaina Modasia, who shimmied a delightful wave of sound from her ghungroo bells. Making up for Vidya’s solo, this was accompanied by live musicians, which made a huge difference in the theatre (although not necessarily if watching on TV). Jacob’s mildly erotic Hidden, partnering Jacob Mabana (the choreographer of his opening solo) was also consistently interesting and danced withy passionate expressiveness.

Although Archie threw in a strong double tour (a jump with two rotations in the air) and a couple of other transitional jumps in the Don Quixote pas de deux, it suffered as a completion piece because the male role is all about presenting the ballerina (Kaylee Marko) through secure partnering. This latter is the most difficult of all ballet skills and hard for any young dancer. Archie – who joins Northern Ballet next season – tried hard but there was too much hesitancy and uncertainty in terms of his feet and hand placements.

The hip hop battle was – in truth – little more than a minor skirmish exposing the lack of variety in the two dancers’ armoury. Both are excellent poppers and Kieran is also outstanding at locking but each dancer’s second minute of battling failed to “up the performance level” through the process of call and response, as it was right to expect.

The third round of this marathon was the highlight. Each of the contestants was paired with a well-known or up-and-coming choreographer to have a work made on them for premiering at this live final. Notably, when put into the hands of expert choreographers, all of the young dancers’ performance levels improved.

Opening this session was Connor, dressed in a white baggy costume with undone laces that flailed in imitation of his movement. He put everything into a visceral solo by Rambert’s Patricia Okenwa. Connor walked (or danced) the talk by embodying the theatrical ideal of leaving everything on the stage, being unable to talk to presenter, Zoe Ball as he came into the wings.

Archie stepped up several notches to demonstrate another side to his talent in a suave and insouciant performance of Kristin McNally’s quirky Stanley (a ‘Mad Men’ style follow-up to her excellent Mad Women, which by coincidence I’d seen just two nights’ previously).

Vidya’s Lamha, choreographed on her by Urja Desai Thakore, brought out the charming contradictions of kathak, the inner softness of sentiment contained within an outer core of robust discipline. The choreographer cleverly showcased Vidya’s maturity within her genre although one sensed a weakness in her ability to let go; a vulnerability that Thakore clearly identified in the challenges that she presented to the young dancer.

On the other hand, Brooke Milliner gave Harry a piece that played to his particular performance strengths, encouraging him to express a concept – that of a mad scientist in the laboratory – for the first time. Harry has a natural sense of theatre and this was – by far – his best performance of the grand final.

Alexander Whitley provided a challenging brief work for Jacob, emphasising his hyper-flexibility and long limbs but also giving him choreography for which he is naturally much less well-suited, particularly in copious amounts of floor-based work. This stretching – in every sense of the word – also brought out the best in this young dancer.

Tony Adigun did much the same for Kieran but with music and rhythm rather than expanding the envelope of his movement. Like any hip hop dancer, especially a popper and locker, Kieran has innate musicality, which Adigun extended to include movement on beats within the beat.

Coming off stage, Kieran told Zoe, “I’ve never danced like that before in my life”! This was a heartfelt and accurate description of the journey on which all of these young people are embarked. I suspect that a case could have been made for any of them to have won and, indeed, they are all winners. As Tamara Rojo said so eloquently in the final summation, we should continue to look out for – and support – these young people as they go forward into their lives in dance.

For what it is worth, I felt that Connor had showcased a consistent strength and quality of movement over all three works and was a very worthy winner. Vidya had given us the most heartfelt journey and would have got my imaginary “runner-up” accolade, with Jacob and Kieran close behind. Archie and Harry delivered a couple of memorable dances and each had great performance strengths but they lacked the consistency of the other competitors.

Zoe Ball and Darcey Bussell kept things moving along well in their divided responsibilities for hosting the event; although watching it back on TV, it was odd to see that the former was generally not looking into the camera while speaking, which seemed odd. Another presenter, Clemency Burton-Hill, chaired discussions at the back of Sadler’s Wells’ stalls that occupied the gaps in the performance schedule – but these discussions were inaudible to those of us in the theatre. Watching the TV show later, they were suitably brief and informative and Ms Burton-Hill looks like a star presenter in the making.

Dancers often make slips – it’s a peril of their profession – but this time the biggest slip up of the evening was organisational, in not ensuring that Carlos Acosta actually knew who had won when he was called forward to announce the result! Inexplicably, Carlos approached the microphone without knowing. Perhaps he was expecting someone to rush out with an envelope. After two attempts to be told by the judges behind him he wandered off to Zoe Ball, stationed in the wings, clearly saying “is it Connor”? It has to be said that this was not the most professional way to wrap up an otherwise excellent show; although perhaps it may even have added to its charm.

Nothing should be – or was – allowed to diminish Connor’s outstanding achievement. The youngest of all contestants, he was the best of the boys and he would still be within the age range to compete in 2017. After being suitably speechless for a while, his eventual reaction was “That’s class”, delivered in a broad Geordie accent. Vidya – who had easily the most vociferous support in the auditorium –remained firmly in control of her all-around technique and embodied her art with subtlety and strength. I’d like to say that she was the best of the girls but, regrettably, this was no contest!

For what it is worth, my recommendations to the BBC for the 2017 contest are: to cut the number of dances in the Grand Final from three to two (perhaps allowing for an extra ensemble dance); allow the expert judges an opportunity to give us their opinions; provide a catch-all opportunity for other genres – a fifth category – because I would have loved to see a flamenco or African dancer, for example; and – above all – try harder for a fairer representation of gender and disability. As Candoco and others have consistently shown, dance is a genuine leveller and – as Annie Edwards proved, while dancing alongside Connor in the recent NYDC shows – the opportunity to have truly diverse dance is always worth exploring.

Catch the BBC Young Dancer Grand Final, along with the category finals featuring all 20 qualifiers (11 female, 9 male) on the BBC iplayer – available for 30 days after broadcast, with Contemporary, the first final due to disappear on 18 May – and more background on the competition on

Graham Watts is a freelance dance writer and critic. He is a regular contributor to Dancing Times and also writes for, and other magazines and websites in Europe, Japan and the USA. He is chairman of the dance section of the Critics’ Circle in the UK and of the National Dance Awards. Twitter: @gwdancewriter

Photo: BBC Young Dancer Final winner Connor Scott (centre) with (l to r): Zoe Ball, Clemency Burton-Hill, Wayne McGregor, Tamara Rojo, Darcey Bussell, Alistair Spalding, Carlos Acosta, Kenrick Sandy, Mavin Khoo, Matthew Bourne. Credit: BBC/Guy Levy

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