Thank God for the fast-forward button. Sadler’s Wells had planned a tentative return to live performance last month but the renewed lockdown forced a rethink and the programme was niftily reconfigured for the small screen. The result, Dancing Nation, is a generous serving of old, new and borrowed work from 15 UK dance-makers. Unfortunately the BBC’s three hour-long iPlayer films pad out the dance content with interviews and mission statements plus non-stop Yentobbing from the inevitable talking head.
Brenda Emmanus, one-time frontwoman of BBC’s The Clothes Show, speaks fluent presenterese, emphasising every other word and greeting each number with kindergarten delight: ‘What a treat we have for you!… Another thought-provoking, exciting line-up of dance for you to enjoy.’ Whatever happened to captions?
Matthew Bourne’s 1988 hit, Spitfire, is a saucy but affectionate parody of ballet manhood styled in the manner of an underwear catalogue. Characterful, clever and brisk, Bourne’s pocket classic gets the first hour off to a deceptively jolly start. Contemporary dance is fairly wholegrain at the best of times but the determination to reflect current events makes for a decidedly downbeat tone.
Shobana Jeyasingh’s Contagion, written in 2018 to commemorate the centenary of the Spanish Flu pandemic, has been granted a new lease of life. The eight-woman ensemble is filmed very handsomely but the movement is bland, the video projections feel leadenly literal (chest X-rays? Really?) and much of the voiceover — graphic accounts of symptoms — feels like drawing the short straw in the doctor’s waiting room.
The Wells’s ballet company chums are also out in force. There is an extract from Will Tuckett’s 2020 Lazuli Sky, an attractively danced, exquisitely designed workout for the Birmingham Royal Ballet allegedly inspired by social distancing. The prefatory interviews seemed longer than the piece itself but did at least give us a peep at BRB’s director, the ever-engaging Carlos Acosta. Why couldn’t he have presented?
States of Mind by the talented Kenneth Tindall bums a ride on the Covid theme via its voiceover but the generic choreography, silkily delivered by Northern Ballet’s finest, has surprisingly little to say on the subject.
My heart sank when English National Ballet soloist Stina Quagebeur declared that her latest work was ‘about the struggle of depression’ but, as she showed with her intelligent 2019 take on Ibsen’s Doll‘s House, Quagebeur has a real gift for infusing steps with emotional colour. The new pas de deux, Hollow, reads like a fragment from an untold story. Emily Suzuki looks through or beyond her anxious partner (Victor Prigent), forever heading for the wings, forever sidetracked by his embrace.
More than half of the pieces predate Covid. There is a meaty extract from Oona Doherty’s 2015 Hope Hunt and the Ascension into Lazarus, which asks us to re-examine the average yob in a startling cross-dressed solo that has the shell-suited Sati Veyrunes stagger and retch her way around Belfast’s St Anne’s Square. Repulsive but gripping.
Boy Blue’s Olivier-winning triptych Blak Whyte Gray isn’t an easy piece to sample (or spell) but Kenrick Sandy’s evolved hip hop vocabulary, a fine trio of dancers and pedigree lighting by Lee Curran survive the edit. Botis Seva’s 2018 BLKDOG, danced by Far From the Norm, makes similar use of mood lighting and juddering movement to hint at alienation and rebellion without spelling it out. Shades of Blue, created this year by brothers Anthony and Kel Matsena, is more upfront, ambitiously tackling both the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement (neck-kneeling becomes a core choreographic motif).
Natalia Osipova is currently starring with Steven McRae in the pay-per-view 2015 recording of Frederick Ashton’s witty pastoral La Fille mal gardée, but those looking for chewier fare will find her at the tail end of Dancing Nation Part 2 in her first-ever duet with Kathak maestro Akram Khan: Mud of Sorrow: Touch.
Fused at the hips, the two stars give a fearsome display of core strength, their four arms snaking around them Shiva-like. Much of the duet could be staged on a hearth rug but they cover more ground in the closing sequence in which they dance a tender cheek-to-cheek until Osipova suddenly melts away, leaving Khan to waltz on empty-handed.
Dancing Nation ends with seven members of Rambert showing off their corncob abs in a bloodless disco routine. Had 2020 gone to plan, the Wells would have staged the company’s revival of Enter Achilles. True, touching, wickedly funny, Lloyd Newson’s bar-room ballet takes everyday blokeisms — back-slapping, tie-straightening, pint-spilling — and amplifies them into a whole new dance vocabulary. Newson’s original 1995 cast with his company DV8 was immortalised in an Emmy-winning film that still lurks online (you can watch it here): no chat, no spoon-feeding, made when the BBC trusted the arts to speak for themselves.