Sunday 8 February 2015

The Dutch National Ballet Junior Company's best Performance yet

Thomas van Damme and Nancy Burer in Embers
Photo Michel Schnater
(c) 2015 Dutch National Ballet, all rights reserved
Reproduced with kind permission of the company

On 24 Nov 2013 I attended the first night of the Dutch National Ballet Junior Company's tour of the Netherlands (see The Junior Company of the Dutch National Ballet - Stadsshouwburg Amsterdam 24 Nov 2013 (25 Nov 2013)). I had come to Amsterdam to see Michaela DePrince as I had heard of her appearance in the documentary First Position and her performance as Gulnare  in the South African Mzansi Ballet's production of Le Corsaire. 

Through coming to watch her I discovered the Junior Company and was charmed by them. They are a very attractive group of young people. Their performances begin with a group photo projected onto a screen that suddenly springs to life. "We are young"says one. "We are international" says another. ""We are fun"says a third. "We are the Junior Company"they say in unison to tinkles of laughter. How can anyone not be charmed by such beautiful and vivacious young people?

The Junior Company's performance of  24 Nov 2013 was one of the most memorable I had ever experienced in the theatre. It was rewarded by a standing ovation which does not happen very often outside political party conferences. I doubted that I would ever see a performance like that one ever again.- but I was wrong, The opening night of the Junior Company's 2015 tour on 6 Feb 2015 at the same theatre won another standing ovation. In my judgment that opening night was even better than the last one.

Before the show there was a short speech by Ted Brandsen, the Dutch National Ballet's Artistic Director. As it was in Dutch which is a language that I have not yet mastered I could make out only a few words but it seemed to tell the origins of the Junior Company, its achievements to date (one of which was its successful visit to the Linbury last year) and an appeal for continued public support. At a reception after the performance I was told by several guests, including the wife of the gentleman in charge of fund raising and also by one of the retired principal dancers, that there is nothing like our Arts Council of England in the Netherlands and that ballet has to rely on box office receipts and individual and corporate donations albeit that one of the largest of those corporate donors is the local authority. If that is the case, the achievement of the Dutch National Ballet in attaining and maintaining the highest artistic standards is all the more remarkable.

The show that the Junior Company are taking on tour is called Ballet Classics and Modern Masters. It is described aptly on the Company's website as "a journey through dance history from the classics to new works created especially for the Junior Company" which
"begins with excerpts from famous classical ballets like Swan Lake and Napoli, which are followed by works by resident choreographer Hans van Manen (Visions Fugitives) and Embers by artistic coordinator Ernst Meisner. Furthermore dancer/choreographer Milena Sidorova presents her work Full Moon. The evening closes with spectacular new works by the young talented Spaniard Juanjo Arques (Surfacing) and Canadian choreographer Robert Binet (Blink)."
As in the last show each ballet is introduced by a short film of the dancers in rehearsal. That is an excellent way of presenting the work to an audience that is not used to ballet. It may not be necessary in Amsterdam and certainly not in London where audiences see a lot of ballet but this show is playing in towns and cities all over the Netherlands where audiences see much less dance. That same technique was used very effectively by Peter Brinson with Ballet for All which helped to create a new audience for dance in the United Kingdom between 1964 and 1979. Raising interest in dance seems to be part of the mission of the Dutch National Ballet too which it has advanced in a variety of ways including, most ingeniously, Boundena new dance app for mobile phones which Ernst Meisner and his dancers helped to develop.

Napoli: Riho Sakamoto, Veronika Verterich, Emilie Tassinari,
Yuanyuan Zhang
Photo Michel Schnater
(c) 2015 Dutch National Ballet, all rights reserved
Reproduced with kind permission of the company
The first work of the evening was the pas de six divertissement from Napoli. I had seen the principals and soloists of the Royal Danish Ballet perform some scenes from that ballet at The Peacock on 9 Jan 2015 so they are fresh in my memory. As I said last month we don't see anything like as much as we should of Bournonville in the UK and I love that ballet. Although it is set in Southern Italy the Danes have adopted it as their own just as we have done with La Fille mal gardéeIt is a colourful, exuberant work with sparkling dancing to a catchy score. The dancers on Friday were Riho SakamotoVeronika VerterichEmilie TassinariYuanyuan ZhangCristiano Principato and Martin ten Kortenaar. I don't think I have ever seen a happier performance of Napoli.

The next work was Embers by Ernst Meisner. I have not yet seen much of Meisner's choreography but everything that I have seen I have liked enormously. His Saltarello was the highlight of last year's show and this performance of Embers by Nancy Burer and Thomas van Damme to the haunting music of Max Richter was my favourite this year. Quite simply, it is one of the most beautiful ballets I have ever seen. Its beauty had me close to tears. Like that of our own Christopher Marney, Meisner's work reminds me very much of Cranko's who is my all time favourite choreographer. London audiences have been reminded of Cranko's genius by the Royal Ballet's production of Onegin which I shall see on 16 Feb - my 66th birthday present from I to me. Sadly Cranko died very young but happily we now have Meisner and I just can't get enough of his work.

Next up was the first pas de deux by Siegfried and Odette in Swan Lake danced beautifully by ten Kortenaar and Zhang. The version that the Dutch dance is by Rudi van Dantzig. I've seen this ballet many times and  thought I knew it well but I learned a lot from the video of the rehearsal. "If you position yourself you will naturally turn"  said Igone de Jongh to Zhang. "You don't need to make yourself turn". Then later "You don't want to leave..... but you leave." No doubt compelled by Rothbart's spell. I understood not only the mechanics of the choreography but also the emotion of the piece so much more.
Bart Engelen, Full Moon
Photo Michel Schnater
(c) 2015 Dutch National Ballet, all rights reserved
Reproduced with kind permission of the company

Milena Siderova's Full Moon was such fun. The music to Romeo and Juliet boomed across the auditorium but there was no sword fight, crowd scene or bedroom pas de deux. Just Bart Engelen clutching a cushion. Engelen is a beautiful young man. Tall and muscular, blond and slender. He contorted himself into all kinds of shapes as Ed Watson did in the first act of Winter's Tale. "This pillow has such a force" explained Siderova in the film. "You can't let it go". I wondered why the company had placed this work immediately after Swan Lake and then it dawned on me. Siegfied saw Odette by moonlight and she was also under a force, namely Siegfried's spell that she could not let go. And why Romeo and Juliet? Well it is a good tune but perhaps the lovers were sent to their by a force that they could not let go.

The first part of the show was rounded off by Hans van Manen's Visions Fugitives. He is one of the all time greats in ballet and I have admired his work for for as long as I can remember. This was the first time this work had been danced by the National Ballet. It was classic van Manen. A gorgeous score also by Prokofiev. Stripy costumes for each pair of dancers in different shades of blue. Wonderful architectural shapes.  Flowing choreography. Beautiful dancing by Burer, Verterich, van Damme, Zhang, ten Kortenaar and Ryosuke Morimoto. Here and there a touch of humour. The crowd loved it as did I. And when he was coaxed on to stage to take a bow the applause exploded. 

I was dazzled by the part one. Most of the audience beetled off to the bars or the loos but I needed space and time to take in all that I had seen. I found my phone and tweeted: "The English language does not contain enough superlatives".

There was more good stuff in part two. Robet Binet's "Surfacing" which was also commissioned for the show. "Get closer. Closer. Closer, Smile more, That's nice" said Binet on the film to his dancers, Sakimoto, Principato, Burer and the company's very latest recruit Antonio Martinez. "Chassé as though you were skating." As Meisner reminds me of Cranko so Binet reminded me of van Manen. More interesting group shapes. The same fluidity. Similar pairing of dancers in costume as well as style. And even the same sort of touches of humour. The audience seemed to recognize the likeness and acknowledged him with the same thunderous applause as they had given van Manen when Binet came out to take his bow. This was the first time I have seen Binet's work and I can't wait to see more.

The last work Blink by Juanjo Arques was pure delight, In a way it encapsulated everything we had seen that evening. The exuberance of Napoli. The fluidity of the Meisner, van Manen and Binet. The touches of humour along the way. His music was also by Richter, His dancers were Verterich, Sakamoto, ten Kortenaar, Morimoto and Engelen. I talked to him about the ballet at the reception after the show. He explained that there was so much misery in the world right now with terrorism, war, austerity and more. We need a bit of levity. He is a charming man kissing me three times on our introduction and again when we said goodbye. "Because I am Spanish" he explained. Spanish he may be but he has danced with the English National Ballet and he knows what we Brits like. This is a work that is sure to appeal to us when we see it at The Linbury in June.

I saw the show as the guest of the company and they treated me royally. They gave me a seat in the stalls in the middle of the 12th row (more or less where I had been last time) which is probably the best place in the auditorium to see a show. That was kind of them but the invitation to attend the party after the show was even kinder. I met the dancers all of whom are beautiful. Some strikingly so. I owned up to writing their profiles in December. I met Ted Brandsen and Ernst Meisner and personally conveyed good wishes from David Nixon and Mark Skipper of Northern Ballet on the off-chance that I might see them. I met Bart Engelen's mum and told her how I admired her son's work - compliments that they both accepted graciously. 

I also got a chance to meet the press officer, Richard Heideman, who had helped me so much with my feature on the Company. Yesterday he sent me all the photos of the performance, three of which I have used today. As this is unlikely to be my last review of those works I expect to use them all. My thanks to him and everyone at the Dutch National Ballet who made my trip to Amsterdam so memorable.

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