Sylvie Guillem
Sylvie Guillem announced she will retire from dance in 2015. Photograph by Lesley Leslie-Spinks

From Glitz to Grit

The year in dance

Looking back, 2014 felt like a bumper year for dance, bringing with it a bevy of exceptional premieres and revivals alike. There were glittering fairy-tale ballets and gritty social dramas, cracking debuts and bittersweet final bows. As ever, there was grace in spades, but at the same time it seems the athleticism of the stage has never been greater, particularly on the ballet side of things, where precarious lifts are now king and 180-plus degree extensions the rule and not the exception.

Thanks to the prominence of the London stage, I was fortunate enough to catch many of the year’s big pieces in person; others I devoured on DVD or followed online, eagerly awaiting updates from fellow balletomanes so I could get in on the hashtag action myself. Below are just some of the many highlights from the past twelve months that spring to mind.

A Call to Arms

The looming centenary of the First World War proved a ripe source of inspiration for ballet companies in the UK this year: big players like the Royal Ballet, Birmingham Royal Ballet and English National Ballet all hopped aboard the war motif, each to moving effect. The latter company’s Lest We Forget—a triple bill of brand-new works from Liam Scarlett, Akram Khan and Russell Maliphant that weaves together glimpses of Great War hardships—stood out in particular for its challenging choreography and soulful execution, proving that newly appointed artistic director Tamara Rojo is as savvy behind the scenes as she is on stage.

BRB’s “Shadows of War” cast a wider net, reviving three celebrated twentieth-century ballets inspired by Britain’s war-plagued past: Kenneth Macmillan’s art deco “La Fin du Jour,” Gillian Lynne’s loving reconstruction of Robert Helpmann’s “Miracle in the Gorbals,” and David Bintley’s requiem for fallen soldiers, “Flowers of the Forest.” All enthralled, but the last work, with its tender take on the Scotland of yore, sent my heart swelling like no other.

Meanwhile, the Royal Ballet’s programme turned its attention to the years of World War II, tying in music by Leonard Bernstein and Benjamin Britten, as well as poetry by W.H. Auden. The premiere of Liam Scarlett’s new ballet “Age of Anxiety” drew the crowds in for this show, but it was Christopher Wheeldon’s “Aeternum,” and Marianela Nuñez’s brilliant performance in it, that ensured they left satisfied.

Matthew Bourne's New Adventure
Matthew Bourne’s New Adventures perform “Lord of the Flies.” Photograph by Helen Maybanks

Stories We Tell

This year saw a lot of love for narrative works both classical and contemporary. I was particularly enamoured with the Royal Ballet’s restaging of Frederick Ashton’s “The Dream,” which expertly injected a dose of Ashtonian seduction into a condensed retelling of Shakespeare’s whimsical A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Cassa Pancho’s Ballet Black got in on the fairy action too, dancing Arthur Pita’s heady “A Dream Within a Midsummer Night’s Dream” to poetic, charming and at times hilarious effect.

Across the pond the National Ballet of Canada donned its tragedy hat with Kenneth Macmillan’s blockbuster “Manon,” a piece that had critics raving about the gravitas principals Sonia Rodriguez and Guillaume Côté brought to their respective roles of Manon and Des Grieux. The Royal Ballet and American Ballet Theatre likewise achieved crowd-pleasing versions of the moving tale: soloist Francesca Hayward was one of several RB ballerinas who dazzled in the starring role, while ABT’s Diana Vishneva prompted a predictably reverential, though no less enthusiastic, critical response to her rendition of the enchanting minx.

Elsewhere, Matthew Bourne had me nodding along heartily to his premiere of “Lord of Flies,” a rousing take on William Golding’s classic tale, while verbatim theatre company DV8’s “John,” a harrowing portrait of a life marred by social dispossession, left tears in my eyes and a weight on my heart.

And then there was Christopher Wheeldon’s splendid “The Winter’s Tale,” a masterful gem of a piece with one of the most magnificent stage design in recent memory, by Bob Crowley. The ballet, the first known dance adaptation of the play, was co-produced between the Royal Ballet and National Ballet of Canada, and left me reeling with delight in the wake of its harmonious marriage of tragic and comedic elements.

Hot Property

Audiences and critics alike lavished some well-deserved attention on talents like Natalia Osipova and Misty Copeland this year, both of whom are fast-tracking their way to superstardom. The former showed just how comfortably she’s settling into her 2013 appointment as a principal with the Royal Ballet by offering one head-turning performance after another over the year: among them were Wayne McGregor’s “Tetractys – The Art of Fugue,” Peter’s Wright’s “Giselle” and Frederick Ashton’s “A Month in the Country.” I found her turn in McGregor’s piece especially captivating: not even a concussion sustained mid-performance could keep the firebird from glowing.

Copeland, meanwhile, revved things up on the publicity side, and it seems her public profile has never been greater: in the space of a few months, the ABT soloist nabbed a seat on the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports & Nutrition; guest judged on So You Think You Can Dance; released both a children’s book and an autobiography; and starred in a wildly popular Under Armour commercial, named one of the year’s top ten ads. Her glittering turn as Odette/Odile during ABT’s 2014 Australian tour has no doubt propelled her closer to her self-professed goal of joining ABT’s principal ranks, and she ended the year on a sweet note with the announcement that she’ll be taking up the Swan Queen role stateside with the Washington Ballet come 2015.

Sylvie Guillem and Russell Maliphant
Russell Maliphant and Sylvie Guillem in “Push”
choreography by Russell Maliphant. Photograph by Johan Persson

Still, the queens of the old generation were happy to show they’ve still got what it takes to sell out an auditorium. Diana Vishneva kicked off 2014 with an appearance in the opening ceremony at the Winter Olympics in Sochi, then a few months later rang in her tenth anniversary with ABT with the aforementioned (and by all accounts rapturous) performance of “Manon.” New York City Ballet’s treasured Wendy Whelan got the tears going with her farewell performance in October, a mixed bill that marked the end of her luminous 30-year career with the company, while the much-loved Sylvie Guillem also set some mourning in motion by announcing her own impending exit from the stage, scheduled for spring 2015. Unlike Whelan, who obviously plans to turn her attention to contemporary work now (she didn’t call one of her final choreographic bills “Restless Creature” for no reason), Guillem has made it clear her upcoming departure is indeed a retirement from the world of dance altogether—a point that makes the richness of her performances this year, among them contemporary duets with Russell Maliphant and Akram Khan, all the more poignant.

Fine Tuning

I found much to praise about the music that graced the 2014 stage, which included well-received contemporary compositions and repurposed classical favourites alike. Thomas Adès debuted a beautiful blend of grand and quirky in “See the Music, Hear the Dance,” a four-part bill that mingled piercing strings and poignant piano notes. Adès was front and centre conducting or playing the piano for each piece, and his presence electrified the production greatly.

Crystal Pite
Crystal Pite’s “Polaris” set to the music of Thomas Adès. Photograph by Andrew Lang

Speaking of electric, let’s talk about Sufjan Stevens’ score for “Everywhere We Go,” an ambitious ensemble piece by NYCB resident choreographer Justin Peck. The composition marks the indie singer’s first orchestral work, and it’s an invigorating piece of music, veering as it does from tinkly to majestic. Similarly exhilarating was Michael Berkley’s arrangement for Wayne McGregor’s “Tetractys,” which breathed new life into the intricate geometries of J.S. Bach’s The Art of Fugue. Berkley used seven sections of the piece, which has long inspired veneration for its quasi-mystical complexity, and the resulting composition felt rich and imaginative.

Finally, I’d be remiss not to mention the inspired collaboration between smash-hit South African choral group Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Ella Spira in Mark Baldwin’s “Inala.” I attended the sold-out premiere of the so-called ‘Zulu ballet’ during the Edinburgh International Festival in August, and I can still feel the residual zing of the uplifting harmonies. Come to think of it, this wasn’t just a highlight of 2014 but one for the ages.

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