United Kingdom English National Ballet’s Emerging Dancer 2015 Final: Nominated dancers, English National Ballet Philharmonic, Gavin Sutherland (conductor). Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 23.3.2015. (JPr)
James Streeter (unable to perform due to injury)
Leanne Benjamin AM OBE
Michael Nunn OBE and William Trevitt OBE (BalletBoyz)
Wayne Sleep OBE
This annual competition is now in its sixth year and allows English National Ballet to recognise and nurture its talent in order to encourage excellence in the company. The nominated dancers perform a pas de deux and a solo in front of a panel of eminent judges and at the end of the evening the Emerging Dancer Award winner is announced together with the recipient of the People’s Choice Award, which is voted for by members of the public during each season. Last year’s winner of the Emerging Dancer Award and People’s Choice Award, Junor Souza, has since been promoted to First Soloist and performed Principal roles in Swan Lake and Nutcracker. He now receives sponsorship from XL Group, helping to support his development as a dancer whilst raising his profile in the UK and internationally. Alison McWhinney, joint winner of the Emerging Dancer Award, has since been promoted to First Artist and – like Junor Souza – has appeared in a variety of productions.
After a sojourn last year to the Lyceum Theatre the competition returned to the Queen Elizabeth Hall and a very pleasing development was the introduction of live music from a much-reduced English National Ballet Philharmonic – arranged behind the dancers – under the always capable baton of Gavin Sutherland. This has the advantage of allowing the musicians to breathe together whenever possible with the dancers during the more classical pieces so that they were not racing to keep up with any recorded music.
The issue I raised last year about the lack of British dancers in the competition final was somewhat addressed this year by the presence of two dancers from Essex and London, James Streeter and Max Westwell. Sadly however injury prevented Streeter (a two-time nominee like Menezes) from performing. Admittedly four others competing – from Germany, the US, Brazil and China – admirably had trained at the English National Ballet School.
As I wrote last year, it is often rare in these sort of competitions for me to agree with the decision of the judges. I suspect this year the only choice they really had to make was whether they would announce joint winners again or could pick an outright winner, which is what they did.
It was the four pas de deux that were more significant for me than the eclectic mix of – occasionally rather brief – solos that followed. Katja Khaniukova had ‘drawn the short straw’ and went first. Even if this did not create more than the usual nervousness for any performer, she had lost her partner James Streeter and he was replaced late on by Ken Saruhashi who was not otherwise involved in the competition. I am sure she will have danced the Pas d’Esclave from Le Corsaire much better in rehearsals and – despite her performance being suitably light and airy – it was, for me, all rather tentative. Much better were Anjuli Hudson and Vitor Menezes in Satanella (Carnival in Venice), another Marius Petipa ballet but one that was new to me. The pas de deux had all the familiar Petipa tropes and however spirited Hudson was with her well-turned elegant legs, Menezes caught the eye more with his splendid elevation and fast pirouettes. The pairing of Jeanette Kakareka and Max Westwell was an odd one as Kakareka is willowy and Westwell is stocky and muscular and so does not possess the physique that some balletomanes demand from a male dancer, but that doesn’t bother me. Her height made for some awkwardness in this partnership and they were dancing the very demanding La Bayadère scarf pas de deux. Kakareka had some uncertain moments but generally oozed polished refinement and Westwell stalked the – albeit rather small – performing space looking as if he was needing to rein in his highly potent athleticism. Regardless, I found it a totally captivating performance. But the best was yet to come with Isabelle Brouwers and Jinhao Zhang’s captivating Don Quixote pas de deux – the most familiar of the duets that were being danced. Brouwers is someone I would happily pay to see and her commanding and effortless artistry seemed to radiate – as only the best dancers can – her joy in performing out to the audience and this was lacking in some of her colleagues. Whisper who dares, but she reminded me of a young Tamara Rojo who just happens to be her boss at English National Ballet. Jinhao Zhang also appeared to be the ‘real deal’ and had the opportunity to show off his bravura technique and considerable stage presence.
Forgetting that there could only – regularly – be one winner I picked Brouwers and Zhang as my favourites after the first half of the competition. (Perhaps – continual hindsight being a wonderful thing – there could be a male winner and also a female one in future years?) Following the pas de deux, each of the seven nominees danced a solo variation they had selected to show themselves to best advantage. Each was preceded by a short film (by ENB’s Junior Soloist Laurent Liotardo) introducing each dancer allowing them to reflect on their motivation, their life and their response to dance, whether their own performances or that of others. There was much about feeling ‘safe’ or ‘alive’ on stage and the ‘love’ and ‘passion’ for dance. These might, in future, do rather more to explain each choice of solo for the audience. There was much laughter when Jinhao Zhang revealed how he came to ballet by default. When young he was ‘small and skinny’ and his mother wanted him to take kung fu lessons but that class happened to be full whilst, next door, it was still possible for him to join learn ballet and so that is what he did!
The seven solo variations were a diverse selection of mostly modern pieces with only Menezes opting for a more classical work Nutcracker, albeit with choreography by Roland Petit that he danced with evident élan. Leading off the second section of the competition Khaniukova was lyrical and sensuous in Christopher Marney’s Continuance to Piece for Christopher by Fabio D’Andrea. I was uncertain why some of these individual contributions should be so much shorter than others – and often quite gymnastic rather than artistic. For instance, no sooner did Kakareka take the stage for Lost in Thought – which she captivatingly danced to one of a number of percussive pre-recorded musical accompaniments we heard – than it was all over and she was taking her deserved applause. Contributions by Anjuli Hudson (ENB First Artist Tamarin Stott’s Insert Name) and Max Westwell (Christopher Bruce’s Swansong) similarly came and went despite showing different facets of their talent.
Once again the best of all was to follow,. Firstly, Jinhao Zhang was able to relax by performing his own choreography for the Dying Swan to Saint-Saëns’s music which has inspired the great ballerinas down the years and recently has seen many men tackling it. How could the choreographer be anything else than excellent dancing his own steps even if, as here, they did not obviously show a swan … dying? His pas de deux partner followed and the lithe and charismatic Isabelle Brouwers did not disappoint in closing the competition part of the proceedings with Brotsjor by another rising young British choreographer, Kenny Tindall from Northern Ballet. Because of her overall excellence – had I been one of the judges – she was my winner.
An interval followed and as the (actual) judges continued their deliberations the 2014’s joint winners, Alison McWhinney and Junor Souza gave a heartwrenching performance of Liam Scarlett’s duet from No Man’s Land that was redolent of loss and grieving. Here I must also praise the eloquent accompaniment from Julia Richter playing the Liszt excerpts on the piano. This was a timely reminder that the triple bill Lest We Forget (of which No Man’s Land forms part) ( https://seenandheard-international.com/2014/04/ballets-evoke-poignant-memories-world-war/ ) will return to Sadler’s Wells in September and should not be missed if you have not seen it … or if you have, go again.
Once again, Natasha Kaplinsky – a member of the ENB’s board – was an amiable host for the proceedings. I am sure it takes a lot to make Tamara Rojo blush but perhaps Ms Kaplinsky was a little OTT in describing her as a ‘miracle’ and ‘extraordinary’ … though I suppose what she has managed to achieve with ENB in the relatively short time she has been in charge might just possibly be aptly described by those two words! Ms Rojo came on stage to announce the result and said how this was her ‘favourite night of the year’ because she has nothing to do and because she was ‘most proud’ to see ‘the future of our organisation brighter and brighter each year’. That, indeed, it undoubtedly is. After naturally thanking the continuing sponsors of the competition, Talbot Hughes McKillop, she announced the 2015 Emerging Dancer as Jinhao Zhang and he received a loud ovation. More surprising was that Laurretta Summerscales was the winner of the People’s Choice Award (which she previously received two years ago). Not that she doesn’t probably deserve it but she also cannot have been expecting this too much because she had to come from sitting very far back in the auditorium to collect the award.
In very many ways this event confirmed that ENB’s future is in very good hands (or perhaps that should be feet?) and in closing Tamara Rojo thanked everyone involved with the Queen Elizabeth Hall saying how the company cannot ‘wait to be back after your facelift’. In truth, this wonderful event would benefit from a real theatre with a proper sized stage and a pit for the orchestra. As always I suspect it comes down to cost.
For more about the English National Ballet’s forthcoming performances www.ballet.org.uk.