ENB’s Strictly Gershwin is Strictly an Old-fashioned Entertainment

 United KingdomUnited Kingdom Strictly Gershwin: Maida Vale Singers, Dancers and Orchestra of English National Ballet, Gareth Valentine (conductor), London Coliseum, London, 4.1.12. (JPr)

Diana Klimentova and Vadim Muntagirov credit ENB and Annabel Moeller.

The BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing on TV has played a tremendous part in making dancing popular again with extravagant production values, wonderful costumes and all the glitz and glamour of a major entertainment event. As Anton and Erin, Brendan, as well as Vincent and Flavia, head round the country with their own shows and Strictly Come Dancing – The Live Tour begins another series of arena dates, the public’s willingness to celebrate the world of popular dance seems unending. But can this interest be extended to ballet that can be considered only its distant relative?

A recent attempt at crossing this ‘divide’ was the interesting Christmas Day BBC offering Darcey Bussell Dances Hollywood where the challenge of recreating iconic dances from Hollywood’s Golden Age dragged the great prima ballerina from a seemingly reluctant semi-retirement in Australia back to the rehearsal studio. Ms Bussell had to lose the angularity of her well-schooled technical refinement to adopt a style somewhat softer and more spontaneous. Her work ethic was admirable and the outcome was fascinating when compared with the original choreography we saw. However this was still heavily promoting theatre or film dance and did little for ballet. Perhaps we need a new celebrity show (does anyone want to commission Sports Star to Ballet Star?) to show us how hard ballet actually is compared with other forms of dance and how – for Darcey Bussell even though retired – a life-long striving for perfection continues.

So with ‘strictly’ in the title, the prospect of the unforgettable Gershwin melodies with all the singing and dancing, entertainment with a capital ‘E’ is expected – and it is to choreographer, Derek Deane, and English National Ballet’s credit that this is precisely what you get. It gives the audience all the excitement and razzle-dazzle of a Las Vegas showroom and a reliable crowd-pleasing money-making enterprise for ENB for those who do not go to the ballet very much. Some may be attracted back for a performance of The Nutcracker, or Swan Lake because they have seen the film and may be willing to give something more challenging a try and so the audience for ballet can grow. This is unlikely but entirely possible.

Strictly Gershwin began ‘in-the-round’ at the Royal Albert Hall and that must have added a certain razzamatazz that would have made it seem its natural home. Apparently during its first run in 2008 there was the use of star ballroom dancers and singers. These are absent now as a version of this ‘show’ that toured provincial venues last autumn and arrives for the first time for a short season at the London Coliseum. With its glitzy costumes (designs by Roberta Guidi di Bagna) and the ENB’s corps, boys and girls, in ballroom gowns, tutus or tails often dancing with unselfconscious ease and elegance as well as a clear sense of style and a smile of their faces, it made me happy to in their company and quelled some doubts about the show that I will try to explain in due course.

The programme is a mixture of ballet, ballroom (including Charleston, Tango, and Salsa) and tap, that is danced with typical ENB élan to the songs of George and Ira Gershwin and pays homage to ‘Gershwin on Broadway’ in the first half and ‘Gershwin in Hollywood’ after the interval. Everything familiar from Strictly Come Dancing on TV is in place from an excellent show band (the ENB orchestra enhanced with some jazzy brass and a rhythm section) and four singers, atmospheric colourful lighting and loads of – often too much – dry ice.

There is a sparkling overture from the excellent orchestra and their hyperactive conductor and music arranger, Gareth Valentine, whose camp antics I found increasingly wearying as the evening went on. The corps whirls on and that sets the tone for everything we subsequently see – the girls pirouetting and the boys holding them upright. The limitation of the language of ballet – as well as pointe shoes – restricts Derek Deane’s options and rarely does what the dancers perform truly match Gershwin’s music. Both The Man I Love (featuring Elena Glurdjidze and Arionel Vargas) and the extended Rhapsody in Blue (valiantly played by Jonathan Scott and showcasing the talents of Erina Takahashi and Zdenek Konvalina) seemed straight-forward pastiches of traditional pas de deux and could have been made to fit most types of music.

An American in Paris recreated the 1950s Paris of the Gene Kelly film and all concerned, led by Anaïs Chalendard and Esteban Berlanga, seemed to have a great time as a harlequin troupe, nannies with prams, gendarmes, sailors and cyclists. Unfortunately the difference between the Royal Albert Hall and the London Coliseum cannot be plainer; sometimes there is so much going on that it is difficult to follow it all. Chalendard’s long-limbed fantasy figure (in the Leslie Caron role) oozed eroticism and was the standout dancing of the first half.

The Hollywood Act contained the best moments of the evening with Deane’s stunning steamy take on the Argentine Tango (It Ain’t Necessarily So)between Tamarin Scott (a First Artist only at present but clearly someone with a big future) and Esteban Berlanga. There was a stunning and truly ‘old-fashioned’ duet for the haunting Summertime with the incomparable paring of Daria Klimentová and Vadim Muntagirov. Their dancing was compelling and intoxicating, totally unforced, revealing true feeling and absolute trust in their partnership. This showed how much more might have been risked elsewhere but it was a wonderful end to the performance that the Fascinatin’ Rhythm finale – reprising much of what we had seen earlier – merely punctuated.

The four-piece Maida Vale Singers (Alastair Brookshaw, Hannah Richmond, Ross Sharkey and Sarah Fuller) also deserve their own special mention, doing well all that was asked of them.

Now my final doubts are especially with the projection on a big screen throughout both the Broadway and Hollywood sections of many of the great movie stars of the 1930s and 1940s. This was often irrelevant – and distracting – to what we were seeing and hearing as well as to the Gershwins themselves. On occasions when the projected photographic images actually did mirror the dancing is it really fair to have the dancers perform whilst Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, for instance, loom large over them?

And finally … what annoyed me most of all were the chunky tap dancers, Douglas Mills and Paul Robinson, who were over-used. I quite understand that they might have been involved in helping choreographing the show but that is no excuse. However energetically they threw themselves into their tap routines, such as Lady Be Good, Strike Up The Band (with added roller-blades) and Fascinatin’ Rhythm, there was no doubting that once you had seen them … you had seen them. Unfortunately such a duo can only work if they are equally talented but here one was more naturally talented than the other who seemed half-a-tap behind his partner.

Of course, something like this is strictly entertainment, and as such transcends criticism and clearly will be back … and I would be only too happy to be there.

Jim Pritchard

For further news about forthcoming performances by English National Ballet please visit their website www.ballet.org.uk.

For information about Strictly Come Dancing – The Live Tour 2012 please visit the website www.strictlycomedancinglive.com.