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Best of 2015: Dance & Ballet | reviews, news & interviews

Best of 2015: Dance & Ballet

Best of 2015: Dance & Ballet

Highlights of the last calendar year

All about the swan: Alina Cojocaru and Ivan Vasiliev in Derek Deane's production of 'Swan Lake' for English National Ballet, one of 2015's top performances© ASH/ENB

It was business as usual in the British dance world in 2015. Looking back over the year, theartsdesk's dance critics see the industry's many talented, capable people continuing to do their jobs well, but we don't recall being shaken, stirred or surprised as often as in other years, or at least not by new works: our top moments of the year are concentrated in the farewells of great dancers Sylvie Guillem and Carlos Acosta, and in classic productions of classic ballets.

What follows is our personal map of 2015's dance uplands. As usual with such lists, it doesn't tell the whole story. For instance, the many punters (and critics) who adored Wayne McGregor's Woolf Works for the Royal Ballet would doubtless cry that a piece of such scope and ambition deserves an accolade; but being in the minority who were deeply disappointed by Woolf Works, theartsdesk is skipping over McGregor's bloated attempt at literary homage. Despite having done, as usual, strong work all year, Rambert are not rewarded with a top spot, nor does the tireless Hofesh Schechter garner a place, despite choreographing for both the Royal Ballet and the Royal Opera and staging the month-long self-organised #HOFEST in September: though we admire his energy and versatility, neither of the two new pieces theartsdesk saw has stuck in our memory. The following pieces, however, are ones we'll be carrying with us into 2016 and beyond.

Hellos

A Picture of You Falling – Crystal Pite
The cerebral Canadian's reworked 2008 duet was a highlight of the Sadler's Wells Associates bill in February. Pite is a choreographer I find I can't see enough of: not only can she command a rich movement vocabulary with consummate skill, but she supplies interesting, intelligent takes even on potentially hackneyed material. A Picture of You Falling is a make-up/break-up kind of romantic duet, but in Pite's hands this trope is handled with all the delicacy, perception and emotional complexity of a short story writer – which Pite showed herself to be, having penned the stunningly effective voiceover which narrated the dance. Coming after a series of brilliant Pite works which were performed in London in 2014, it's no surprise that A Picture of You helped Pite take home an Olivier Award for Outstanding Achievement in Dance this year. Let's hope we see even more of her in 2016!

Seven – Martin Schläpfer/Ballett am Rhein (pictured right)
Dancers of Ballett am Rhein in Martin Schläpfer's SevenA difficult piece, to be sure – and that's just the Mahler symphony (No 7, of course) that this Edinburgh Festival highlight was set to. It might not have been everyone's cup of tea, but this was exactly the kind of piece a major arts festival ought to be programming: something quite different from the endless, commercially safe triple bills by a small handful of choreographers which dominate the contemporary dance scene in London. Martin Schläpfer's neoclassical, tanztheater-inflected choreography was smoothly executed by the dancers of his company, Ballett am Rhein, and its intelligence, inventiveness, and scope blew most of the year's other new offerings out of the water.

Gravity Fatigue – Hussein Chalayan
It was more performance art than it was dance, and there were stretches of tedium where concept had been allowed to triumph over theatre, but many images from the fashion designer's first dance show (created in collaboration with choreographer Damian Jalet) were unforgettable. People in burqas tumbling and sliding on a pool of glossy black balls; dancers bouncing back-first on trampolines concealed in a seemingly solid floor; white paper dresses pressed out of perforated-paper doorways then sent flying away on a clothesline. The music was wallpaper paste, but the visuals were astonishing.

Goodbyes

Life in ProgressSylvie Guillem
It was entirely characteristic of Sylvie Guillem to mark her farewell to dancing with a programme including two new works by old friends Akram Khan and Russell Maliphant: the former prima ballerina's post-ballet career in contemporary dance has been hallmarked by both her relentless self-challenging, and her canny choice of collaborators. In the event, neither piece quite scaled the heights of her previous work with the two choreographers (Sacred Monsters with Khan and PUSH with Maliphant both rank among the best dance you could want to watch), but Guillem at 49 is still extraordinary and to watch her for the last time a rather melancholic kind of pleasure. One can perhaps imagine other dancers with her leggy frame, her flexibility, but it's Guillem's ability to combine mesmerising seriousness of intent with an equally mesmerising capacity for joy on stage that makes her the Real Deal. Dance will be the poorer without her.

A Classical Selection – Carlos Acosta (pictured left)
Carlos Acosta and Zenaida Yanowsky in a duet from George Balanchine's AgonHis fans were starting to think that he’d go on forever. His 40th birthday had come and gone in 2013 and he continued to dance superbly. Granted, his mid-air splits in April’s run of La Fille Mal Gardée didn’t match the airy ease of his first showing in that ballet 12 years before, but the plush finish of his steps was 100 per cent there, and his megawatt charm undimmed. With his retirement from the Royal Ballet (though emphatically not from the world of dance) it’s that charm that will be most missed on the classical ballet stage. Others will learn to fill his signature roles (the Death figure in Kenneth MacMillan’s Song of the Earth was one, also reprised last Spring, and the Diana and Actaeon pas de deux with which he drew gasps at his farewell gala earlier this month). But Acosta’s unforced nobility on stage, his frankness, his generosity with partners and apparent total absence of personal vanity - these were rare qualities indeed. Jenny Gilbert

Old Friends

La Fille Mal Gardée – Royal Ballet
No choreographer has come close to matching the sunny humour or sheer lovability of this three-act ballet by Frederick Ashton, first seen in 1960 and revived for the umpteenth time at the Royal Opera House last spring. On paper, it reads like the kind of sugar rush one might wish to avoid: biscuit-tin-pretty English countryside, a pantomime dame, a live Shetland pony and a lot of stage business involving pink ribbon. In the event, it’s an addictive treat, the choreography for the leading couple ranking among Ashton’s most gloriously inventive – and challenging. Noteworthy performances from this year’s casts included that of 25-year-old Vadim Muntagirov – can this boy jump! – and fellow Russian Natalia Osipova. The live cinema broadcast on 5 May featuring Osipova and the floor-scorching Steven McCrae may have created more new ballet fans than a decade of Nutcrackers put together. The company came up trumps on this production too: whether scything corn or Lancashire clogging, the corps looked as if they were having a ball. Jenny Gilbert

Swan Lake – English National Ballet and Birmingham Royal Ballet
Tyrone Singleton as Prince Siegfried and Céline Gittens as Odette in Swan Lake. Photo by Roy Smiljanic.It was the end of an era at the Royal Ballet, which brought down the curtain on its 1987 Anthony Dowell Swan Lake for the last time in March, but the creator of its Gothic look, eminent theatre designer Yolanda Sonnabend who died aged 80 in November, was more lamented than the ballet itself, which had always attracted critical censure. But 2015 did deliver two memorable Swan Lakes, and both – fortunately – are in no danger of being retired.

Right at the start of 2015, English National Ballet presented arguably their biggest treat of the year: a run of their excellent Derek Deane production of Swan Lake, in which Alina Cojocaru and Ivan Vasiliev several times took the principal roles. Their high-wattage international star power was more than matched by strong performances from company dancers in supporting roles; ENB have an embarrassment of riches at the Soloist level these days. Birmingham Royal Ballet don't have quite the same talent pool to draw on, but they have a trump card in their exquisite Peter Wright production, surely the best in the UK. Their London performances in October with the brilliant Koen Kessels conducting, and Tyrone Singleton and Céline Gittens (both pictured above right) in the principal roles, were unforgettable: a masterclass in doing a classic well.

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