Letters from London by Graham Watts. A feast of new dance for the UK after a long period of hibernation

After the enforced hibernation of theatres in the UK over most of the preceding eighteen months, September will see a plethora of new and revived productions all across the United Kingdom.

by Graham Watts
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Amongst several highlights are the British debut of the National Ballet of Ukraine on 7 September with a special one-night-only performance at London’s dance theatre, Sadler’s Wells; the long-awaited opening of Akram Khan’s new full-length production for English National Ballet entitled Creature, also at Sadler’s Wells, on 23 September; and – on the same day, in Glasgow – Scottish Ballet will premiere the revival of the only ballet choreographed by the Hollywood legend, Gene Kelly.

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The Ukrainian Ballet Gala will offer to the audience a celebration of Ukrainian dance and its global influence

The Kiev National Ballet will be the key ingredient in a Ukrainian Ballet Gala that is the brainchild of Ukrainian-born ballet dancer and producer, Ivan Putrov, a former principal of The Royal Ballet. “This is a project that opens up the wonders of Ukrainian culture to a British audience,” Ivan explained to me when we met to discuss his gala. “It is incredible that this will be the first performance of the Ukrainian National Ballet in the UK,” he added.

Photo: Ivan Putrov

Putrov has conceived and produced the project alongside dramaturg Olha Danylyuk, as a means of celebrating the 30th anniversary of Ukraine’s independence and its distinguished contribution to the arts.

The Ukrainian Ballet Gala will feature the world premiere of System A/I, created jointly by French-Spanish choreographer, Ludovic Ondiviela (a former dancer with The Royal Ballet) and Danylyuk. This specially commissioned piece has been created with artists of the National Ballet of Ukraine to explore the growing importance and presence of artificial intelligence in everyday life.

The second half of the gala will celebrate both the classical ballet form and the Ukrainian dance tradition by showcasing established Ukrainian stars from as far afield as New York, Vienna, Vilnius and Toulouse, to be paired with the brightest talents from The Royal Ballet, English National Ballet and soloists from the National Ballet of Ukraine.  Putrov told me that his object is “to offer the audience a celebration of Ukrainian dance and its global influence.”

Whilst Putrov acknowledges that the pandemic has brought obstacles to the production process, it has been the support of the Ukrainian Embassy in London, the National Opera House of Ukraine, Sadler’s Wells Theatre and the gala’s headline sponsor, Ferrexpo that has made the project viable.  Putrov asserted that “it is in difficult times that true friendships and great events are forged. The pandemic has highlighted the importance of culture and everyone’s will to support it as an essential part of life – the soul of humanity.”

 

Akram Khan’s Creature is set to diversify the ballet language even further in a narrative that is a ‘post Frankenstein’ interpretation of Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck story

The world premiere of Creature has been delayed twice due to the pandemic but it is scheduled to finally go ahead on 23 September at Sadler’s Wells.  After the success of Akram Khan’s previous two works for English National Ballet – respectively Dust (2014) and Giselle (2016) – Creature is set to diversify the ballet language even further in a narrative that is a ‘post Frankenstein’ interpretation of Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck story in which the lonely Creature is tested in the frozen Arctic to be sent by Earth to colonise other planets.

Photo credit: English National Ballet

I spoke to the ENB principal dancer, Jeffrey Cirio, on whom the title role is being created, during the final days of preparation for the new ballet.  “Creature is a dark and moving work in which, even prior to the pandemic, Akram was envisaging disease, mask-wearing, isolation and a sense of abandonment,” he explained.   “Akram used the seclusion of ‘lockdown’ to develop the original concept further requiring a lot of re-learning, adjustment, and additional nuances, taking the work deeper,” he added.

Responding to my question about the development of Khan’s choreographic style, Cirio said that it would continue the ground-breaking hybrid of his Kathak heritage with ballet. “Akram’s Giselle was 70% ballet/30% Kathak whereas, in Creature, the proportions have been more than reversed.”  Cirio added that Khan wanted to see the ENB dancers “let go, take on that vocabulary, and make it their own.”

 

Scottish Ballet will present a revival of Gene Kelly’s ballet, Pas de Dieux, which was made on the Paris Opera Ballet in 1960

On the same day as this London World Premiere, Scottish Ballet will be opening their own world first in Starstruck, although the choreography will not be new since is essentially a revival of Gene Kelly’s ballet, Pas de Dieux, which was made on the Paris Opera Ballet in 1960, at the specific invitation of the then étoile, Claude Bessy who had appeared in Kelly’s concept movie, Invitation to the Dance (1956).

I spoke to Kelly’s widow, Patricia, about the ballet’s revival.  “Despite the change of title, it is still Gene’s ballet, 100%,” she told me, adding, “I waited two decades to find the right company on which to revive it.”   She is certain that the ballet is now again in safe hands.  “Scottish Ballet is a team that I trust.  They have an excellent repertoire of ballets, such as The Crucible and A Streetcar Named Desire, in which the movement propels the story.”

Photo credit: Don Flood

The narrative – set to Gershwin’s Concerto in F, concerns a playful interlude on Earth of Zeus, Aphrodite and Eros, causing romantic mayhem amongst the humans that they encounter.  Scottish Ballet have added a prelude to the original and commissioned Lez Brotherston to create new designs that will reflect the original set and costumes by the late André François (the originals were destroyed in a flood).  Patricia Kelly hopes that following the premiere in Scotland the new ballet will tour extensively and that a new generation will get to understand that as well as being a Hollywood Legend her late husband was an inspirational creative force through his unique fusion of classical ballet with his American style movement taken from Lindy Hop, Charleston, jazz and musical theatre.

 

Other UK highlights during September, after the enforced hibernation of theatres in the UK

Continuing the theme of crossing over from Broadway to ballet, Northern Ballet will premiere Merlin, a new ballet by award-winning choreographer, Drew McOnie (best known for choreographing King Kong on Broadway and Baz Luhrmann’s Strictly Ballroom in London’s West End).  Merlin is based on the eponymous mythical wizard of the Arthurian legend and will open at Nottingham’s Theatre Royal on 25 September.

Other UK highlights during September are that English National Ballet will celebrate several years of its Emerging Dancer competition with a virtual event on 2 September; the Rosie Kay Dance Company will premiere a new contemporary dance interpretation of Romeo + Juliet at the Birmingham Hippodrome (8 September); the Royal Academy of Dance will present the Margot Fonteyn International Ballet Competition online (9 September); and – on 15 September -the London Ballet Circle will celebrate its 75th Anniversary with a special online event, featuring Royal Ballet dancers of the past 75 years.

After the famine, comes a feast of ballet in London!


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