Letters from London by Graham Watts! My Twelve Best ballet shows of 2022 for Ballet Magazine

The best dozen from the year, a collection of dance from around Europe, in Avignon, Barcelona, Birmingham, Budapest, Glasgow, London and Paris in the view of Graham Watts, Chairman of the Dance Section of The Critics’ Circle and of the UK National Dance Awards

by Graham Watts
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2022 was the year that audiences came back to dance and houses were (often) full once more.  For me, it was a less prodigious dance-watching year than pre-covid but I still managed to see 155 separate performances across six different countries (not including dance seen online or at the cinema).

The following is my best dozen from the year, a collection of dance from around Europe, in Avignon, Barcelona, Birmingham, Budapest, Glasgow, London and Paris.

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1 Romeo and Juliet – The Royal Ballet – 10th January

Surprisingly, this was my only five-star review of the year and it came in the first show that I reviewed!Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet is a production I’ve seen countless times but this performance was extra special for the extraordinary, fresh account of Juliet by Marianela Nuñez.

Juliet had never been an obvious pièce de résistance for Marianelaand it took ten years at The Royal Ballet before she first danced the role; but this performance changed all that.  Elevated to the opening night cast due to an injury to Natalia Osipova, Marianela delivered a performance of extraordinary versatility and her interpretation of Juliet refreshed the whole production as ifa makeover on the face of a much-loved friend.

Stand-out performers:  Marianela Nuñez (Juliet); Federico Bonelli (Romeo); Ryoichi Hirano (Tybalt); Marcelino Sambé (Mercutio); Gary Avis (Lord Capulet); Kristen McNally (Nurse); Alondra de la Parra (Conductor)

Photo: Federico Bonelli as Romeo and Marianela Nuñez as Juliet in Romeo and Juliet The Royal Ballet 2021 ROH. Photograph by Andrej Uspenski; 

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2 A brace of Giselle’s– The United Ballet of Ukraine (15th September) and English National Ballet (14th October)

Less than a month separated two very different productions of Giselle, which were remarkable for reasons that were greater than the performances themselves.

A scratch company of some 70 refugee dancers from war-ravaged Ukraine brought together in The Hague as the United Ukrainian Ballet performed an adapted version of Alexei Ratmansky’s Giselle (initially made on the Bolshoi, in 2019) at the London Coliseum.   Given the knowledge that two dancers from the National Ballet in Kyiv had died in the conflict, it was hard to watch this ballet about love, betrayal and loss without thinking of their own ultimate sacrifice.

Tamara Rojo’s final performance as Akram Khan’s Giselletook place at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées.It was an outstanding performance by a company giving its all not just to mark Tamara’s farewell but also that of Stina Quagebeur (performing her most popular role as Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis).  Adding to the passion of the performance, Tamara shared the stage with her life-partner, Isaac Hernandez, performing as Albrecht, and the chemistry between them was unsurprisingly a powerful cocktail.   All good things come to an end but Tamara’s intelligent and absorbing performances will be sorely missed.

Stand-Out Performers: Christine Shevchenko and Tamara Rojo (Giselle); Oleksii Tiutiunyk and Isaac Hernandez (Albert/Albrecht); Sergei Kliachin and Ken Saruhashi (Hilarion); Elizaveta Gogidze and Stina Quagebeur (Myrtha)

Photo: Stina Quagebeur Tamara Rojo and James Streeter in Akram Khan’s Giselle (c) Laurent Liotardo

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3 Like Water for Chocolate– The Royal Ballet – 2nd June

Kevin O’Hare’s commitment to commissioning new work for The Royal Ballet is highly commendable and there was significant risk attached to turning Laura Esquivel’s modern Mexican novel into a ballet for a London audience.

However, Christopher Wheeldon’s third full-evening work for The Royal Ballet was a resounding success, bringing the pacy momentum of Broadway to his own unique style of neoclassicalballet with a strong evocation of Mexico, helped through Joby Talbot’s excellent scoreto capture Esquivel’s inseparable and enigmatic union of food, folklore and romance.     When Esquivel’s novel was first translated into English it was as Like Water for Hot Chocolate and Wheeldon certainly put the hot back with this ballet.

Stand-Out Performers: Francesca Hayward (Tita);Marcelino Sambé (Pedro);Laura Morera (Elena); Mayara Magri (Rosaura); Anna Rose O’Sullivan (Gertrudis); Cesar Corrales (Juan Alejandrez); Matthew Ball (John Brown); Christina Arestis (Nacha); Isabella Gasparini (Chencha); Alondra de la Parra (Conductor

Francesca Hayward (Tita), Marcelino Sambe

Photo: Francesca Hayward as Tita and Marcelino Sambé as Pedro in Like Water for Chocolate The Royal Ballet 2022 ROH. Photograph by Tristram Kenton

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4 The Burnt City – Punchdrunk – 17th December

However much one imagines an immersive, promenade performance it would be hard to contemplate the sheer scale of The Burnt Citywithout experiencing it.  In fact, the venue (One Cartridge Place) is so vast that no two experiences of the show will ever be the same.  One cavernous hall represents the dark world of Greece and then a series of intricate alleyways on two levels takes the audience into the intimacy of the homes and shops of Troy.  Somewhere in between is the safe haven of a neutral bar with non-stop cabaret.   Audience members wear Grecian style masks for anonymity.

The atmosphere of The Burnt City was sinister, dark, and smokywith scenes and vignettes to follow in every square, alleyway and room.  It is a show to be seen again and I will certainly be back in the New Year.

Stand-Out Performers: Chihiro Kawasaki (Polyxena); Emily Mytton (Hecuba); Sam Booth (Hades); Harry Price (Polymestor)

Photo: Chihiro Kawasaki_The Burnt City_ photo by Julian Abrahams_1

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5 Flamenco Festival– especially Viva!(22nd June) and An Ode to Time(1st July)

After a three-year absence London’s Flamenco Festival returned to Sadler’s Wells with a programme that celebrated the traditions and legends of the art form but also demonstrated how the boundaries of flamenco are being stretched to encompass innovative and thought-provoking forms.

The festivalopened with a highly personal show in Manuel Liñán’s Viva! – a production that bent the rules of flamenco’s traditional aesthetics.  Viva!is a whole show dedicated to flamenco dragwith Liñán and six other dancers not just impersonatingbailaoras butepitomising them!   There was plenty of humour but these comedic moments were merely punctuations in a work of intense seriousness.

Just as it had started, so the festival ended on a high, in An Ode to Time by Compañía María Pagés.   Pagés is also at the forefront of imaginative innovation in modern flamenco and – supported by the dramaturgical concepts of her playwright/poet husband, El Arbi El Harti – this is a show that integrates a powerful visual aesthetic with memorable original music and stunning choreography for the company’s nine dancers, led by the arresting performance of Pagés herself.

Stand-Out Performers: Manuel Liñán; María Pagés; Hugo López;David Carpio

Photo: Manuel LInan_Viva_photo credit Emma Berge

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6 The Car Man– Matthew Bourne’s New Adventures – 10th June

Matthew Bourne’s The Car Manwas expanded to fit a new immersive experience in the cavernous Royal Albert Hall, with Lez Brotherston’s set extended by a platform reaching out into the audience.  These changes intensified a fast-paced and absorbing theatrical experience where narrative, choreography, excellent performances and stunning designs combined to create yet another great example of the successful New Adventures style.

This story of betrayal, jealousy and brutal murder – not to mention the subsequent ghostly apparition of the blood-soaked victim – ought to be in the horror genre but in the hands of Bourne and Brotherston The Car Man  has a cinematic and comic book feel.

Stand-Out Performers: Will Bozier (Luca); Zizi Strallen (Lana); Paris Fitzpatrick (Angelo); Alan Vincent (Dino); Kayla Collymore (Rita); Danny Reubens (Gaoler)

Photo: Car Man_photo Johan Persson

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7 Kontakthof – Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch – 3rd February

This performance at Sadler’s Wells celebrated the 40th anniversary of the first London performances by Tanztheater Wuppertal, beginning the import of Pina Bausch’s repertoire with more than twenty of her works being presented in the UK since then.

Kontakthof is a hybrid of the German words for “contact” and “court”, and the work is essentially about courtship, set in something akin to a village dance hall with a curtained-off stage, a piano and chairs arranged around the walls.  The 22 participants, split evenly between men and women, go through a wild and weirdly wonderful set of activities, often repeated, and performed to the catchy, syrupy, tango-infused music that was popular in the Weimar Republic.  It is Pina at her very best in terms of fascinating and absorbing dance theatre.

Stand-Out Performers: Emma Barrowman; Andrey Berezin; Eddie Martinez; Michael Strecker; Nayoung Kim

Photo: PTWPB_Kontakthof_photo credit Reiner Pfisterer

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8 The year of Mayerling– Hungarian National Ballet (14th March), Scottish Ballet (13th April) and The Royal Ballet (21st October and 17th December)

2022 was undoubtedly the year of Mayerling.  Fifteen years had elapsed since Kenneth MacMillan’s ballet had last been performed in Budapest and this revival celebrated the reopening of the opera house after a five-year refurbishment, coming on the eve of the day that celebrated Hungarian independence.Mayerling requires a large company to field multiple casts of a long list of characters and the Hungarian ensemble rose to the challenge with aplomb.

Neither Scottish Ballet nor Glasgow’s Theatre Royal had the necessary capacity for a full-blown Mayerling, hence the ballet was trimmed in scale to produce The Scandal at Mayerling.  A smaller ballet with scenes and characters excised but with a silver lining that places even greater emphasis on the psychology of Rudolf’s private associations; the necessary intimacy greatly enhanced by the smaller stage and closer proximity of performers to the audience.

The Royal Ballet filled the opening weeks of its 2022/23 season with a large number of performances of Mayerling as a poignant commemoration of the 30th anniversary of MacMillan’s death (which occurred on the opening night of another revival, in October 1992).   (My experience of Mayerling could have been extended by its premiere by Paris Opera Ballet, later in October, but covid put paid to that)!

Stand-Out Performers: Gergö Armin Balázsi, Evan Loudon, Ryoichi Hirano and Vadim Muntagirov (Rudolf); Lily Felméry, Sophie Martin, Natalia Osipova and Yasmine Naghdi (Mary Vetsara); Claudia Garcia Carriera, Roseanna Leney, Laura Morera and Fumi Kaneko (Countess Larisch); Jessica Carulla Leon, Bethany Kingsley-Garner and Marianela Nuñez (Mitzi Caspar); Zsófia Gyarmati, Marge Hendrick andItziar Mendizabal(Empress Elizabeth); Yourin Lee, Constance Devernay and Francesca Hayward (Princess Stephanie); András Rónai, Bruno Micchiardi andLuca Acri (Bratfisch); Iurii Kekalo and Gary Avis (Bay Middleton); Christopher Saunders (Emperor Franz Joseph); Laura Topolánszky (Katharina Schratt); Constant Vigierand Bennet Gartside (Count Taafe); Barbara Kerényi (Princess Louise); Reece Clarke (Hungarian Officer); Adám Medveczky and Koen Kessels (Conductor)

Photo: Hungarian National Ballet_©Péter Rákossy_Mayerling

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9 The Forsythe Evening– English National Ballet – 31st March

Many people have tried to shake up classical ballet but few have done so quite as successfully as William Forsythe and Tamara Rojo and the renewal of their partnership as the swansong for Rojo’s ten-year tenure as artistic director of English National Ballet brought a programme that put the energy of street dance into ballet.

The Forsythe Eveningwas ninety minutes of great dance and pure joy, which built upon two pre-existing works in Blake Works I, originally made for the Paris Opera Ballet in 2016, and Playlist (Track 1,2) made for ENB in 2018 and now expanded by Forsythe into Playlist (EP).  The performance was enlivened by the appearance of Mr Forsythe himself, belying his age – at 72 – by joining in the continuing performance at the curtain call, shimmying as Natalie Cole’s popular song, This Will Be (An Everlasting Love) continued.

Stand-Out Performers: Isaac Hernandez; Emily Suzuki; Emma Hawes; Aitor Arrieta

Photo: William Forsythe, Foto Serghei Gherciu

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10 Men in Motion– 6th November

If Diaghilev’s legacy is anywhere then it continues in the pioneering work of Ivan Putrov.  Born in Kyiv, the former Royal Ballet principal (he was with the company from 1998 to 2010) has developed his Men in Motion series for a decade and this performance at the London Coliseum celebrated that tenth anniversary.

The gala featured fifteen outstanding dancers in a repertoire of twenty excerpts, many of which (unusual for such galas) were new to – or rarely-seen by – London audiences.   No-one could complain of being short-changed in this lengthy and action-packed programme of male virtuosity.

Stand-Out Performers: Luca Acri; José Alves; Matthew Ball; Leo Dixon; Jack Easton; Fumi Kaneko; Irina Lyakhovskaya (pianist); Matteo Miccini; Isaac Mueller; Vadim Muntagirov; Ivan Putrov; Joseph Sissens; Guillermo Torrijos; Koyo Yamamoto; Edward Watson; and Dmitry Zagrebin

Photo: Ivan Putrov_Men in Motion_Photo Roy Tan

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11 Don Quixote – Birmingham Royal Ballet – 25th February and 7th July

I caught both the Birmingham (Hippodrome) and London (Sadler’s Wells) premieres of Carlos Acosta’s refreshing revamp ofDon Quixote.  The ballet needs more than sixty dancers with many having challenging dances to perform and, with nowhere to hide, the ballet is an essential component in Acosta’s strategy to stimulate the BRB dancers and raise performance standards.   Despite cast reshuffling occasioned by a scattering of covid cases, the company rose to the challenge with aplomb, exhibiting strength at all levels.

One could feel the heat and sense the scent of citrus in this affectionate caricature of nineteenth-century Spain complete with its bustling taberna, macho matadors and campfire guitars.  Acosta has brought Latin flair to reawaken this venerable Russian warhorse.

Stand-Out Performers: Momoko Hirata and Yaoqian Shang (Kitri); Mathias Dingmanand Max Maslen(Basilio); Tom Rogers and Jonathan Payn(Don Quixote); Brandon Lawrence and Alexander Yap (Espada); Yu Kurihara and Sofia Liñares (Mercedes); Yu Kurihara and Lucy Waine (Queen of the Dryads); Yvette Knight (Dulcinea); Rory Mackay (Gamache); Valentin Olovyannikovand Kit Holder (Lorenzo); Kit Holder and Laura Day (Sancho Panza); Tzu-Chao Chou and Enrique Bejarano Vidal (Amor); Paul Murphy (Conductor)

Don Quixote, , •Choreography – Carlos Acosta after Marius Petipa, Production – Carlos Acosta, Set and Costume designs – Tim Hatley, •Video design – Nina Dunn, Lighting – Peter Mumford, Birmingham Royal Ballet, Southampton, Mayflower Theatre,2022, Credit: Johan Persson/

Photo: BRB_Don Q_photo_BRB

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12 FUTR PROCHE – Opera Ballet Vlaanderen – 19th July

Opera Ballet Vlaanderen presented this world premiere by Jan Martens in Avignon’s Cour d’honneur as part of the city’s annual arts festival.  FUTR PROCHE was created for fifteen professional dancers, two children and a harpsichordist and was shown on a sultry summer evening to a capacity audience of 2,000.

The Cour d’honneur at night – the show finished at 11pm – is one of the world’s most spectacular performance venues and Martens made full use of this unique, ancient edifice by having massive real-time projections of the dancers spread across it.  Martens is obsessed with turning –I’ve never seen so many spins in a single dance performance – and the finale was a masterpiece of controlled movement.

Stand-out performers:  Zoe Ashe Browne and James Vu Anh Pham


Photo: Cour d’Honneur Avignon_photo by Graham Watts

About the author: Graham Watts is a freelance dance writer and critic.  He has written the biography of Daria Klimentová (The Agony and the Ecstasy) and contributed chapters about the work of Akram Khan to the Oxford Handbook of Contemporary Ballet and on Shobana Jeyasingh for the third edition of Routledge’s Fifty Contemporary Choreographers.  He is Chairman of the Dance Section of The Critics’ Circle and of the UK National Dance Awards and regularly lectures on dance writing and criticism at The Royal Academy of Dance, The Place and for Balletristic in Kyiv.  He was nominated for the Dance Writing Award in the 2018 One Dance UK Awards and was appointed OBE in 2008.

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