Review: English National Ballet - Emerging Dancer Competition - Lyceum Theatre

Performance: 19 May 2014
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Tuesday 20 May 2014

Alison McWhinney dances 'A Million Kisses to my Skin' for English National Ballet's Emerging Dancer 2014, at The Lyceum Theatre, London on May 19, 2014. Photo: Arnaud Stephenson

Declaring a tie in a contest where six eminent experts choose between six aspiring hopefuls might ordinarily be termed a cop-out. And if, as Artistic Director Tamara Rojo announced at the end of proceedings, “they’re all winners to me”, why not have a six-way tie and be done with it! I have not often agreed with the judges in past iterations of this contest to select an emerging dancer from amongst the lower ranks of the English National Ballet, but on this occasion, I heartily agree that the judges got it right. Inside the first 30 seconds of their (La) Esmeralda pas de deux (which followed a pair of Bournonville duets by their competitors), it was evident that Junor Souza and Alison McWhinney were in an altogether different league in terms of maturity, confidence and all-around technique.

The choice of pas de deux was a significant factor. The pas de deux from Bournonville’s La Sylphide and Flower Festival ( in Genzano, to give its full title) are pretty, lyrical and – of course – highly stylised in the mould of Royal Danish ballet but they don’t pack the same mighty punch as the ornate and stately pas de deux from Jules Perrot’s La Esmeralda, enhanced by gorgeous, sparkling, green costumes.

Irrespective of the more dynamic choreography, Souza looks like a principal dancer in the making (not surprising since he already frequently dances principal roles) whereas his male counterparts (another Brazilian, Vito Menezes, gamely standing in for the injured Ken Saruhashi, and Joan Sebastian Zamora) looked as if they were stepping up a level (as indeed, they were). Both guys gave strong accounts of the Bournonville style and steps but not with the necessary all-in consistency and both struggled with some specific aspect of technique.

Senri Kou danced the Sylph role with great sensitivity and an intuitive sense of the ballet’s romantic lyricism but the role itself lacks the panache of La Esmeralda. Madison Keesler was the most expressive of all the dancers but her undoubted sense of theatre was not sufficiently enhanced by the material or a robust clarity in her technique. By contrast, McWhinney gave an assured performance in which the main elements of a classic pas de deux (notably, in this case, balance, pointe work and pirouettes) were confidently and comfortably accomplished (helped in no small measure by Souza’s effective partnering) . Although the two dancers noticeably tired towards the end of the coda, had there been a clapometer to measure the audience’s appreciation at the end of this part of the contest then it was clear that the Souza/McWhinney partnership were easily the strongest crowd-pleasers.

Their four competitors came back strongly in the solos, each one choosing a piece that suited their individual strengths very well. My personal favourite (indeed I think it could easily be a regular gala divertissement) was the solo entitled Variations on a Theme created for Keesler by Liam Scarlett, which utilised the dramatic impact of a voluminous red dress aligned to the dancer’s equally vivid strength of expression. Courageously opening in silence, Keesler had me mesmerised throughout with a mature and vivacious performance that used the stage space effectively and completely.

Vitor Menezes had opened the solos with a cheeky Brazilian number known as the Mambo Suite, choreographed by Ana Maria Stekelman, which he danced with flair, wit and musicality. Kou followed, exquisitely dancing John Neumeier’s Nocturnes, a brief work that emphasised the ethereality of her fluid arms and lyrical body flow and Zamora gave a solid account of the closing section of Roland Petit’s stirring L’Arlésienne, a piece regularly danced around the world’s galas (especially by Paris Opéra Ballet étoiles).

Matched against the high standard of their own sumptuous pas de deux and the four preceding solos, the offerings by McWhinney and Souza were a tad disappointing. McWhinney took on a complex extract from David Dawson’s A Million Kisses to my Skin, which required delicacy and accuracy in its delivery but ends abruptly and was the shortest contribution; Souza danced a whacky piece made by his colleague, James Streeter, entitled Last Minute, which showed off a comedic skill mingled with clever timing but was less memorable for its dance content than the earlier work.

This said, the supremacy this pair had gained in the pas de deux was not to be lost in the solos. If a gun was put to my head and I was forced to chose between the pair, I might have gone for McWhinney as an outright winner (on the strength of an extra half-mark for her solo) but given that it takes deux to pas so strongly, a draw was the fairest (and a highly popular) outcome. The other four dancers are also artists that are clearly emerging into the top drawer and they should each be justly proud of their exploits, not least because there was no visible evidence of nervousness (which bedevilled last year’s duets) and that the overall standard of technique and expression was generally very strong.

Twenty four year old Souza also won the People’s Choice Award voted by ENB audiences over recent months (again this is hardly a surprise given that his roles have generally been of a higher profile than the other competitors), which gave him a total prize fund of £2,750; McWhinney received a prize of £1,750 and the other four nominees all won £500 each. More importantly they won respect and admiration from their peers and the public alike.

While the judges deliberated, the audience was given a refresher from last year with a sassy solo made and danced by the emerging dancer of 2013, Nancy Osbaldeston, and a cut-price Manon bedroom pas de deux (missing both the bed and the desk) by the People’s Choice winner from last year, Lauretta Summerscales, partnered by James Forbat.

The event was held for the first time at the Lyceum Theatre (usually home to The Lion King) and ably hosted by Natasha Kaplinsky – a Board member of the ENB – who kept proceedings flowing without overkill. Once again, each solo was prefaced by a nice little intimate film of the next contestant (rehearsing, putting on make-up, swallowing a marshmallow, that kind of thing) made by Laurent Liotardo, which could only have been enhanced by a better audio quality for some of the dancers’ speech.

The judging panel was a sub-committee of the Order of the British Empire (Gillian Lynne DBE, Deborah Bull CBE, Arlene Phillips CBE, Clement Crisp OBE and Wayne Sleep OBE) with Rojo being the only non-member of this elite “club”. She has such good cause to be proud of her company that I doubt if that lack of civic decoration will last for long!

More on English National Ballet:
www.ballet.org.uk



Graham Watts is a freelance dance writer and critic. He writes for londondance.com, Dancetabs.com, Dancing Times, Dance Europe and other magazines and websites in Europe, Japan and the USA. He is Chairman of the Dance Section of the Critics’ Circle and of the National Dance Awards in the UK.

Photos: Arnaud Stephenson

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