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2014 in review: dance

Cindy Salgado and Eric Beauchesne in The Tempest Replica at Sadler's Wells. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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Neil Norman charts the highs and lows of dance in 2014, which included a radical interpretation of The Tempest and a disappointing production of aerial ballet Shadows of War.

While it may not have been a vintage year for ballet, there were some gems to be found, even if the dancers often outclassed the new works. Intriguingly, the best new ballets of the year were both based on Shakespeare, though they could not have been more different.

Edward Watson and  Lauren Cuthbertson in The Winter's Tale. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Edward Watson and Lauren Cuthbertson in The Winter’s Tale. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Christopher Wheeldon’s version of The Winter’s Tale at the Royal Opera House was a formidable achievement, given the complexity of the play – a play whose meaning is debated even today by Shakespeare scholars. But Wheeldon held his nerve and stuck to the text, bringing much of the character, mood and feeling into a piece of melancholic grandeur that sat well on the stage.

Across town in Islington, the latest Sadler’s Wells associate artist, Canadian choreographer Crystal Pite, tackled The Tempest in a completely different manner. With a theatrical and choreographic bravura that defied belief, she plumbed the depths of the play and delivered a radical interpretation that was wholly comprehensible and absolutely faithful to Shakespeare’s intentions

Of the big beasts, I thoroughly enjoyed English National Ballet’s rip-roaring answer to Pirates of the Caribbean, Le Corsaire, which received a vivid production and a terrific lead in Vadim Muntagirov in what was to be his last major role for ENB before joining the Royal Ballet.

Later in the year, Derek Deane (the Cecil B DeMille of ballet) made a bit of a mess of Romeo and Juliet at the Royal Albert Hall, with too many bodies on stage drifting around and some fairly bloodless sword fights. However, the ageless Tamara Rojo was superb as Juliet and pretty well stole the show. But even she was eclipsed by Daria Klimentova, who gave her final performance as Juliet with her former ENB partner Muntagirov, who returned to bid her a fond farewell. At the curtain, when she removed her pointe shoes and threw them into the audience, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

The Russians came, of course, and proceeded to show off all over the place. The Mariinsky – now possibly the greatest ballet company in the world – had plenty to shout about, including the wonderful Diana Vishneva, whose Giselle was to die for. Over at the Royal Ballet, former Bolshoi star Natalia Osipova seemed delighted to be liberated from the shackles of classicism and brought a mesmerising aura to Alastair Marriott’s new ballet Connectome.

RB’s Manon was terrific but its finest hour was the tribute to Frederick Ashton, whose quartet of pieces including Scenes de Ballet and Symphonic Variations displayed the best company dancing I saw all year. Heavenly.

Tamara Rojo and Akram Khan in Lest We Forget at the Barbican. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Tamara Rojo and Akram Khan in Lest We Forget at the Barbican. Photo: Tristram Kenton

The First World War was the dominant theme for much new work and ENB scored a hat trick with Lest We Forget – a full-blooded triptych from Liam Scarlett, Akram Khan and Russell Maliphant. Birmingham Royal Ballet’s triple bill, Shadows of War, proved intriguing as it included David Bintley’s early ballet Flowers of the Forest and Gillian Lynne’s reconstruction of Robert Helpmann’s lost ballet, Miracle in the Gorbals. It didn’t please everyone but I loved it.

Maliphant returned to the stage as a dancer for possibly the last time with Sylvie Guillem in his seminal work Push, which melted my heart like hot wax. And on the wilder frontiers of modern dance, Compagnie Kafig’s Boxe Boxe made me laugh out loud with its knockout combination of dance, boxing and a string quartet. Best designed ballet of the year was Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Beauty and the Beast; take a bow, Philip Prowse.

Among the disappointments were Darshan Singh Bhuller’s wobbly Shadows of War – an aerial ballet that never took off – and Mats Ek’s incomprehensible Juliet and Romeo. Two great choreographers having an off day.

The worst nights were in the company of Riverdance clones, Rhythm of the Dance – slick, soulless and unbelievably boring – and Probe’s Running on Empty, which did exactly what it said on the packet.

Best dance show of 2014:
The Tempest Replica, Sadler’s Wells
Canadian choreographer Crystal Pite’s radical interpretation remained faithful to Shakespeare’s intentions.
Worst dance show of 2014:
Running on Empty, Soho Theatre
Within the scattered imagery of death by drowning and elusive betrayal there is the germ of a good idea, but it requires a much firmer hand to bring the components together into a satisfying whole. A tiresome, adolescent folly.

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