Letters from London by Graham Watts! Six of the Best in London’s Dance Performances of 2021

A round-up of the best dance seen in London, in 2021, split into four categories: Best new work, Best revival, Best Performances and Rising Stars, with six shows in each category

by Graham Watts
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My pick of six of the best in terms of New Productions, Revivals, Performances and Rising Stars in London over this past year has been easier to compile than usual since theatres were dark until May.  That said, companies – both resident and visiting – did their very best to make up for the months of inactivity when dance returned.

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Six of the Best in London’s Dance Performances of 2021. Best new work, Best revival, Best Performances and Rising Stars

The year began in lockdown and, thanks to Omicron, it ended on the verge of another theatre blackout with performances across London again being cancelled due to the latest covid spike.   The Royal Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker was cancelled from 21 December to 3 January and Birmingham Royal Ballet’s production of the same ballet at The Royal Albert Hall was withdrawn altogether.  The interpretations of Tchaikovsky’s ballet by English National Ballet and Matthew Bourne’s New Adventures soldiered on with makeshift casts and intermittent cancellations.

The lists below are in alphabetical order rather than in any priority.


Six of the Best in London’s Dance Performances of 2021. NEW PRODUCTIONS 

City of a Thousand Trades (Birmingham Royal Ballet –November – Sadler’s Wells)

Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Curated by Carlos programme opened with Miguel Altunaga’s love letter to the company’s home city, which began life as part of BRB’s Ballet Now project; a vehicle for discovering new creative talent. Altunaga’s biggest project to date incorporated a dozen dancers and a complex set involving several moveable platforms, representing the industrial heart of Birmingham; embellished by new music (a first-ever ballet score by Mathias Coppens)and punctuated by the arresting pace of inspirational poetry by Birmingham’s Poet Laureate, Casey Bailey. Altunaga’s integration of all the elements was always absorbing and his choreography retained its own indelible presence within the visual and aural spectacle.


The Dante Project (The Royal Ballet – October – The Royal Opera House) 

The first act (Inferno) of Wayne McGregor’s The Dante Project had been premiered in Los Angeles, in July 2019.  McGregor and composer Thomas Adès completed The Dante Project with the final two acts for this world premiere of the full-length ballet, which unsurprisingly feels more like a triptych of separate pieces; that effect being heightened by Tacita Dean’s contrasting designs for each act.  This was McGregor’s farewell to Edward Watson, who retired following these performances, after a glittering career of 27 years dancing with The Royal Ballet.   In this final role the choreography played to his particular strengths of charismatic expression and angular movement that managed to appear simultaneously both distorted and elegant.


Optional Family: A Divertissement (The Royal Ballet – May – The Royal Opera House)

 Spoken text was a dominant factor in Kyle Abraham’s quirky bulletin on a dysfunctional relationship. Natalia Osipova (dancing on her 35th birthday) and Marcelino Sambé performed as the warring spouses with Stanisław Węgrzyn as the grit within their marriage.   This work was a short piece created by Abraham while getting to know the Royal Ballet’s dancers in preparation for a major commission that is due in March 2022.  As an appetiser, this was an indicator of promise to come; as a work in its own right, one hopes it will stick around as a worthy addition to future programmes.


Romeo & Juliet (Polunin Ink – December – The Royal Albert Hall) 

Johan Kobborg’s much-redacted version of Shakespeare’s tragedy rattled along with a compelling momentum; dominated by David Umemoto’s brutalist design of a monumental castle.  Kobborg’s choreography for Sergei Polunin, as Romeo, played to his virtuoso strengths of dancing in the air, his classical technique fashioned with a joyous abandon that gave his dancing a refreshing realism.   Alina Cojocaru was convincing as the juvenile Juliet and her maturity as a performer accentuated every scintilla of this special role.   This may be her seventh different production as Juliet but I suspect it is the one that will have meant the most.

Sergei Polunin and Alina Cojocaru in Romeo and Juliet – photo credit Jack Thompson


States of Mind (Northern Ballet – June – Sadler’s Wells)

Kenneth Tindall’s personal response to the pandemic was part of Northern Ballet’s Contemporary Cuts programme. The choreographer’s inspiration reflected the notion of necessity being the mother of invention; or, in this case, the adversity of the pandemic providing an impetus for creativity.  Tindall’s non-narrative, modernist theme is firmly rooted in a classical vocabulary and was inspired by thoughts, feelings and news headlines during the first of the coronavirus lockdowns.  Although a reflection of times that are still painfully present, the ensemble of 13 tremendous dancers brought an excellent programme to a conclusion that was refreshingly uplifting.


The Waiting Game (Ballet Black – November – Linbury Studio Theatre)

Mthuthuzeli November followed up his outstanding choreographic debut (Ingoma)with another excellent ballet that was an absolute delight throughout from the memorable opening image of Sayaka Ichikawa peering over the top of a lit doorframe.   November’s ballet is structured in three movements, the first of which is choreographed to his own recorded voiceover with existentialist references of choice, risk, opening and closing doors, playing games and making memories. November’s infectious and effervescent personality coupled with his creator’s knowledge made this a particularly memorable performance that reflected a palpable sense of joy all around the auditorium.


Six of the Best in London’s Dance Performances of 2021. REVIVALS 

Anything Goes (September – The Barbican Theatre) 

It seemed risky to take a musical, first performed in 1934 and based on sundry farcical and romantic antics on a luxury liner’s transatlantic crossing, and revive it in a London theatre far from the the West End, better known for classical music and contemporary theatre, but it was a risk that paid off in this box office smash.  Cole Porter’s music and lyrics include some classics (including the title song, I Get a Kick Out of You and You’re the Top) and Kathleen Marshall’s choreography has three spectacular ensemble numbers, led by Broadway sensation, Sutton Foster (more of whom, later).


Chacona (Birmingham Royal Ballet – November – Sadler’s Wells)

The final work in the Curated by Carlos programme was this UK premiere by Acosta’s fellow Cuban, Goyo Montero, which was originally made on Uruguay’s Ballet Nacional de Sodre, in 2017.  It is an extremely challenging exercise in structure, canon and unison with strong neoclassical choreography.   The music was led, consecutively, by solo violin (Robert Gibbs), guitar (Tom Ellis) and piano (Jonathan Higgins) arranged in a triangle pointing upstage with the piano at its apex.   Montero’s absorbing and uplifting workw as an emphatic end to this excellent programme.

Goya Montero’s Chacona for Birmingham Royal Ballet Photo by Johan Persson


Lamentation (Yorke Dance Project – November – Linbury Studio Theatre)

Yolande Yorke-Edgell opened her company’s Past Presentprogramme of historical and new work (the latter representing her close association with the late Sir Robert Cohan) with her own representation of one of the great modern dance solos of the early twentieth century; performing Martha Graham’s Lamentationwith perspicacious clarity.   That this signature piece, which embodies the essence of grief, is so brief – less than 5 minutes – adds to the power of its punch.  Yorke Edgell gave an arresting, elegiac performance of Graham’s largely seated movement dynamic, developing memorable imagery through the shapes and patterns made in the stretched purple material shrouding her body.


Matthew Bourne’s Nutcracker! (New Adventures – December – Sadler’s Wells) 

Despite losing colleagues to Covid’s Omicron assault, principal dancers quickly learned ensemble roles and understudies were called upon to ensure that the show went on.  The close-knit integration of the New Adventures’ team meant that the impromptu cast could not have appeared slicker or better prepared.   The result was one of the most spectacular shows of the year; a triumph of story-telling, choreography, stunning designs, lighting and, of course, Tchaikovsky’s magical and melodic music.  It is all so well crafted and co-ordinated under Bourne’s direction but none of that means anything without stage performances to match and this extemporaneous cast delivered sheer joy and great entertainment.

Matthew Bourne’s Nutcracker Photo credit – Johan Persson; The Marshmallow girls in Matthew Bourne’s Nutcracker! Photo credit – Johan Persson

Poems and Tiger Eggs (Ballet Cymru – November – Lilian Baylis Studio) 

Rarely has a performance moved me so much although dance was the least of the reasons for this emotional response.  Dylan Thomas’ poetry is so affecting in any event: ordinary words that he strung together to create extraordinary rhythms and beguiling imagery.  And the sonorous Welsh lyricism in the luscious voice of Cerys Matthews is the perfect instrument for their recitation.  Despite the security of Matthews’ all-pervasive virtuosity, taking on a choreographic representation of Thomas’ poetry in the name of Wales must have been a Herculean task but Darius James and Amy Doughty have done so with sensitivity and flair, alternating interpretations of joy and poignancy, as appropriate.


The Statement (The Royal Ballet – May – The Royal Opera House) 

In Crystal Pite’s satire on big corporate politics, three officials are joined by an unknown superior from “upstairs” to get an official statement on an incident, during which interplay there is much concern about what is “on the record”.   Recorded voiceovers (including by long-term Pite collaborator, Jonathon Young) make quick-fire repartee that is closely aligned to the gestural movement of the four performers, the choreographic excellence coming in the slickness of these interactions.   Ashley Dean, Kristen McNally, Calvin Richardson and Joseph Sissens rose to these pinpoint challenges with aplomb.   The Statement was paired with Pite’s Solo Echo in a programme to celebrate 21st Century choreographers.


Six of the Best in London’s Dance Performances of 2021. PERFORMANCES 

Jeffrey Cirio in Creature (English National Ballet – September – Sadler’s Wells)

 Jeffrey Cirio was magnificent in the title role of Akram Khan’s third production for English National Ballet.  He was convincing as the repressed subject of the brigade’s experimentsto test his endurance in tolerating extreme cold and isolation; touching in his brief interludes of tender happiness with his lover Marie (a poignant performance by Erina Takahashi); and dynamic in rising to master Khan’s complex choreography through his diverse dance skills, characterized bymuscle-isolating, sinuous, shape-shifting, swift movements.

English National Ballets, Jeffrey Cirio in “Creature” by Akram Khan, photo: Ambra Vernuccio


Sutton Foster in Anything Goes (September – The Barbican Theatre)

Sutton Foster’s versatility is the jewel in the crown of this effervescent revival of Cole Porter’s musical.  Her singing captures the 1930s dynamic, especially in I Get A Kick Out Of Youand she is central to all three of the show’s big dance numbers, exemplifying her strong range of tap and high-kicking dance skills.  Her stamina and accuracy, singing and dancing over these three long numbers, was remarkable.   Hopefully, Foster will return when the show makes a comeback in summer 2022.


Sutton Foster, Anything Goes, Photo © Joan Marcus


Akram Khan in Xenos (Akram Khan Company – November – Sadler’s Wells)

It took a year longer than originally planed for Xenos to come full circle back to Sadler’s Wells and it made a memorable last hurrah for Khan’s solo dance career.   In Xenos, Khan honours the million-plus Indian citizens who fought for King and (another) Country in the horrors of world war one and especially the 75,000 Indian soldiers who died in that conflict.   Hischoreography includes the elegant spiralling arms, darting hand patterns, quicksilver feet and lightning-fast pirouettes of kathak; and then, as if summarising his own career trajectory he moved into the metaphors of modern dance that has characterised his later work.

Akram Khan in Xenos, Photo credit Jean-Louis Fernández


Michela Meazza in The Midnight Bell (New Adventures – October – Sadler’s Wells)

 Bourne’s story places six entwined relationships, through a smorgasbord of characters selected from various novels and plays written by Patrick Hamilton, into a common scenario of the imagined London public house of the title.   Michela Meazza portrayed Miss Roach, a spinster who drinks her port and lemon seated alone, and is easy prey for seduction by Ernest Ralph Gorse, a confidence trickster, raffishly played by Glen Graham.  Meazza brought so much nuanced finesse to her complicated role and her revenge on the cad is deliciously comic and triumphant.

1Matthew Bourne’s Midnight Bell – Michela Meazza far right Photo credit Johan Persson


Laura Morera and Federico Bonelli in Giselle (The Royal Ballet – December – The Royal Opera House)

An autumn season of Sir Peter Wright’s production of Giselle showcased some extraordinary performances, any one of which could have made this list.  Once again Natalia Osipova and Marianela Nuñez gave very different but nonetheless equally outstanding performances in the title role but it was the final performance of the run that will remain indelibly etched in my memory.   Laura Morera celebrated her 25th year with the company with a beautiful and sensitively nuanced performance exemplifying the full range of her artistry.  Federico Bonelli matched her with an outstanding reading of Albrecht; his 32 consecutive entrechats were a remarkable test of technique and stamina.


Vadim Muntagirov in Apollo (The Royal Ballet – June – The Royal Opera House)

The Royal Ballet’s American programme opened with the calm serenity of Balanchine’s Apollo, marking the 50thanniversary of Igor Stravinsky’s death.  Debutant Vadim Muntagirov was perfectly suited to the title role, performing with a mix of polished precision and coltish angularity that was a perfect embodiment of the juvenile god; both childishly inquisitive in the scenes following his birth and heroic in his final ascent to Mount Parnassus as a fully-fledged god.   This performance was a stunning memorial to Balanchine’s memorable ballet, which seemed as fresh as it must have been when premiered, almost a hundred years ago.

Vadim Muntagirov in Apollo photo by Helen Maybanks ROH


Six of the Best in London’s Dance Performances of 2021. RISING STARS 

Lukas Bjørneboe Braendsrød

Norwegian dancer, Lukas Bjørneboe Braendsrød is a First Artist of The Royal Ballet who has come to prominence during 2021, notably in the May UK premiere of Mats Ek’s woman with water, a humorous piece that began as a solo for Mayara Magri to perform with a specially designed table; developing into a quirky duet with Braendsrød involving a carafe and glass of water.  It required deft circus-like timing and ended with Braendsrød mopping the floor and sweeping the comatose Magri into the wings!  He was also a prominent member of the ensemble in Pite’s Solo Echo; gave a strong account of Hilarion in the opening night cast of Giselle; and proved an enduringly strong partner for Melissa Hamilton in the rechoreographed pas de deux for The Nutcracker’s Arabian Dance.

Mariko Sasaki and Lukas Bjørneboe Brændsrød in Anemoi, The Royal Ballet ©2021 ROH. Photograph by Alice Pennefather


Ashley Dean

Ashley Dean – from South Africa – is another First Artist of The Royal Ballet with a promising future.  A tremendous run of performances in 2021 was capped off through her debut as Clara in The Nutcracker, coming alongside sundry other roles (Columbine, Mirliton, Snowflake).  She was excellent in the Giselle pas de six, and had back-to-back daily performances in The Dante Project and Romeo and Juliet.  In addition to Clara, another breakthrough performance came in mastering the challenging requirements of Crystal Pite’s The Statement.


Jamiel Laurence

Laurence is a dancer (former soloist with Scottish Ballet), choreographer and filmmaker and although he could be nominated in either of the latter categories, he is listed in my “Rising Stars” for his entrepreneurial credentials, having launched Ballet Nights in October.  Not only did Laurence and his team put together an excellent mix of classical music and dance (both classical and contemporary) in a remarkably modern format but he also introduced a new London venue with the massive stage of the Lantern Studio Theatre in London Docklands.  Let’s hope it is the first of many such events.


Liam Riddick

It is strange to see the name of a man who has been voted Best Dancer in the UK in a list of “Rising Stars” but Riddick is here for his new choreography, which in 2021 has included The Three Sections for Gwent-based Ffin Dance and Murmurations, his first commission for Ballet Cymru, made to the music of Welsh musical star, Charlotte Church.  The title brings to mind the spectacle of a swooping mass of starlings and Riddick’s choreography creates a stream of inter-connected swarming patterns amongst eleven dancers.   It’s a thoughtful and absorbing work that exemplifies Riddick’s musicality and his ability to move bodies harmoniously and at scale.


Eilis Small 

An Australian dancer from Canberra, Eilis Small is an Artist at Birmingham Royal Ballet who came to special notein 2021, performing in Daniela Cardim’s Imminent, part of the Curated by Carlos programme.  The sixteen-strong cast was led by her magnetising performance in a role that seemed to have some resonance with the concept of “a chosen one”.  She also impressed as one of an exceptionally strong trio of Harlots in Romeo and Juliet (although seen in Birmingham, not London).

Eilis Small (standing) in Imminent, Photo Credit – Johan Persson


Valentino Zucchetti

Zucchetti’s Scherzo, performed by a young cast selected from the corps de ballet, closed the British Ballet Gala at The Royal Albert Hall, in June, prefacing The Royal Ballet’s world premiere of his expanded work, Anemoi, a plotless, elegant and airy ballet, inspired by ideas from Greek mythology where gods ruled over the winds.  Waves of Zucchetti’s charming classical dance visually interpreted a bespoke arrangement of Rachmaninov’s music, much of which wasnew to choreographic use and provided both sentimental, swirling love themes (for two pas de deux) and ominous, stormy interludes.  It was touchingly dedicated to the memory of Zucchetti’s late friend and mentor, Liam Scarlett who had tragically died in April.


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