sat 20/04/2024

Best of 2023: Dance | reviews, news & interviews

Best of 2023: Dance

Best of 2023: Dance

Eco-politics, digital wizardry, brilliant revivals, brave new ventures and the occasional stunning new work

The only way is up: Fumi Kaneko of the Royal Ballet in Wayne McGregor's Untitled, 2023photo: Alice Pennefather

Dance lovers have had a better time of it this year as the performance sector starts to find its feet again. In the wake of a general cull of independent dance companies, 2023 has seen signs of fresh growth.

Lively enterprises have sprouted in unlikely places – a pop-up jazz club at the back of the Royal Festival Hall (Drew McOnie’s Nutcracker), a community hall wedged between Canary Wharf high-rises (Ballet Nights). There have been dance adaptations of texts ancient and modern: Pam Tanowitz’s gorgeous Song of Songs at the Barbican, on the one hand; on the other, The Limit, a kinetic take on a West End play. In Jungle Book reimagined (pictured below), Akram Khan took a children’s favourite and turned it into an eco-disaster story. In The Sacrifice, Dada Masilo toured the country with a Botswana-style Rite of Spring.Akram Khan's Jungle Book reimaginedOn bigger stages, extravagance has not been much in evidence. With its new-look Cinderella, The Royal Ballet gave a glamorous facelift to an Ashton classic that no one knew needed one, and Birmingham Royal Ballet tackled the Black Sabbath back catalogue with a blast of dry ice, tight leather and gusto.

But more often it’s been a case of reviving known winners. The ballet director’s motto “If in doubt, do Swan Lake” continues to serve them well, and English National Ballet’s showing at the Coliseum in June was an evergreen example. And yet, given the excellence and high-octane fun of the year’s best revivals – the Royal Ballet’s Don Quixote, Matthew Bourne’s Edward Scissorhands – full houses have been the exception rather than the rule. At time of writing it’s still possible to bag a reasonably priced seat at any performance of Scissorhands right to the end of its run on 20 January.

In terms of choreographic output, Wayne McGregor appears to have been on overdrive, despite side hustles that have included guest-directing the National Youth Dance Company, professoring at a leading conservatoire and running Company Wayne McGregor. The revivals at the Royal Opera House of his full-evening Dante Project and Woolf Works can be added to that busy list. But new works can have a long gestation, and preparations for what transpired to be one of his best yet – Untitled, 2023 (pictured top), for the Royal Ballet – were apparently being laid some years before. The striking abstract designs, for example, were commissioned in 2018 from the Cuban-American artist Carmen Herrera, then aged 102. Typically minimal and elemental, they were her first for the stage. Yet they made an unforgettable contribution to the epic impact of this half-hour ballet. The momumental setting aside, there was bowl-me-over beauty in McGregor's deployment of dancing bodies.Figures in ExtinctionAnd that wasn't all from Mr McGregor. On a smaller scale, but hardly less ambitious given its state-of-the-art immersive technology, came UniVerse: A Dark Crystal Odyssey, inspired by the Jim Henson cult classic about an ailing planet. Performed by McGregor’s own company, it ran at the Linbury Theatre in the summer but there will be a second chance to see it this coming March at Sadler’s Wells. Rightly, eco-politics were a bit of a theme in 2023. Nederlands Dans Theater (NDT1), accidentally coinciding with Earth Day and the “mass die-In” of protesters in central London, brought Figures in Extinction [1.0] (pictured above), a collaboration between the globally hot choreographer Crystal Pite and Complicité director Simon McBurney. Deploying dancers in the most imaginitve of ways, it presented a chilling catalogue of some of the plant and animal species, glaciers and rivers that are being driven to oblivion by human negligence and greed. Yet, visually splendid as it was, the most trenchant images were not the gorgeous ones. The agonised death throes of the Splendid Poison Frog, frying under a tanning lamp, will haunt my dreams for years.

The digital and dance wizardry was even more eye-popping in Tom Dale Company’s touring double bill, which also had environmental destruction in its sights. Although choreographers have been playing with avatars and movement sensors for decades, Dale is unusual in focusing entirely on digital interaction with his dancers. And while one hesitates to proclaim the novelty of anything at all, still less a new art form, I can say with conviction that I had never seen anything like Surge. At first, it’s all about pattern, as six white hexagons waltz like debutantes around the floor. Then Jemima Brown appears, a buzz-cut androgyne marooned on a diminishing island of digital seawater, seething lava, wind-tossed leaf litter. At one point the floor appears to tilt as well as spin, so that we lose our sense of terra firma. Stunning and disturbing in equal measure.

But technical novelty isn’t everything, and the year’s two most enjoyable nights of dance were decidedly analogue. Tiler Peck is a name you’re sure to see much more of. For years a principal dancer at New York City Ballet, she has now cut her teeth as a producer-choreographer. And how. Turn It Out With Tiler Peck was on for only three nights at Sadler’s Wells, but given the audience response (it nearly blew the roof off) a return visit is a must. In the course of a generous and varied bill, the clincher was Time Spell, a vast ecumenical romp bringing tapdance, jazz, street and musical improv into contact with ballet to explosive effect. Even the two scatting vocalists turned out to be hoofers as well, and as the creative melée reached a dizzying crescendo of noise and leaping bodies, even the ballerinas rose up on their pointes to have a stab at tapping.

That was the first time this year when I shouted aloud for sheer eruptive joy. The second was on the opening night of Ballet Flamenco Sara Baras, again at Sadler’s Wells. Baras, now a sleek 52, was in at the start of the current flamenco revival and first came to notice for her penchant for performing in trousers. Now garlanded with major awards she has technically nothing to prove and this seems to have liberated her to find new depths in flamenco. It remains a mystery how a dance form that is basically a confection of rhythmic feet and twining arms can deliver something akin to a religious high, but there were long stretches of her show Alma (meaning “Soul”) that touched something ineffable. Two hours without interval never felt so short. It was quite simply the most storming night out.

In terms of output, Wayne McGregor seems to have been on overdrive

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