A statement of intent sits rather incongruously alongside the credits of Sharon Eyal’s Used To Be Blonde, not unlike a health warning on a packet of cigarettes. It describes the choreographer’s signature style as a unique approach, ‘conveying extreme emotions through movement’, which produces ‘a mesmerising experience’ when combined with these young dancers’ energy and talent, pushing them to the limit. Well, I have no quarrel with the last bit.  Certainly, these 41 youngsters have energy and talent in abundance and the 50-minute work undoubtedly drained their collective vitality needle down to zero. 

NYDC in Sharon Eyal's Used to be Blonde
© Stephen Wright

There is little that is genuinely unique in the choreography. Following hot on the heels of Ballet British Columbia‘s performance of Bill, last month, this show emphasises that Eyal has a clear signature style, recognisable rather than exceptional, containing building blocks of movement motifs that have largely been well-trodden in the past. Her stylistic skill – working with co-creator, Gai Behar – lies in how these motifs are assembled and – overall - I much preferred her language in Bill than in this new work (though, to be fair, the opportunities to work with these young dancers would have been much more limited than with a professional company).

If ‘mesmerising’ is intended to mean fascinating or enthralling, then I disagree. If hypnotic, then it is spot on! Fifty minutes of a throng of dancers dressed in tight, glossy black unitards (arguably unsuitable for teenaged girls) on a dimly-lit, smoky stage, performing to digitally-manipulated, repetitive, percussive, techno sound, is certainly hypnotic; an apt synonym for which is soporific. 

If Used To Be Blonde were half the length (something akin to Bill) it would have been much the better for it, but it was a struggle to stay focused (even to keep my eyes open) for the last half. The reason for this hypnotic effect was also embedded in a movement style that had a strong tendency towards dancers moving on the same spot such that when they changed positions rapidly, the intended effect was notable. But, for the main part bodies trembled, they bobbed and wobbled; legs were often widely spread in aggressive approximations of a plié; and heads turned rapidly from side-to-side like a flock of demented roosters. 

There are significant limitations in using such a large cast and having to fill a full evening with just one work; and, one might suggest, that a show lasting less than an hour is not really full value for an evening (although I’m sure that the company’s parents, families and friends will disagree). It might be a better experiment to give NYDC a mixed programme of shorter works – perhaps even by different choreographers –thereby creating a more fulfilling evening for both dancers and audience.

NYDC in Sharon Eyal's Used to be Blonde
© Stephen Wright

An excellent six-minute film introduced the work, focusing on a handful of the young performers and identifying the eclecticism of their styles, including an 18 year-old bharatanatyam dancer from Essex (Sundaresan Ramesh) – who tickled the audience’s fancy with self-deprecating humour comparing himself to the virtuosity of others in this NYDC cohort (“I can’t even do a cartwheel”) and the multi-skilled, largely self-taught charisma of East Londoner Brandy Mubato (also 18). 

Introduced to this select few, one couldn’t help trying to identify them in the performance, which was often hard amongst the crowd. However, Alex Thirkle translated an ebullient sparkle from the film into a similar dynamism on stage and – helped by having a leonine share of the featured soloist dances – he was (and is) certainly one to watch. The impactful hip hop skills of Jeran Entwhistle were also evident as was the joyful enthusiasm of Nottinghamshire’s Beth Gardiner. Each of these dancers was enjoying a second year in NYDC.

Whether one likes the challenging choreography presented each year to the NYDC isn’t really the point. It is, unquestionably, an excellent experience for the young dancers fortunate enough to be chosen (recognising that there are many, many more who miss out) and it is impressive to note that, since 2013, 180 young people have benefitted from this “company experience” and that, to date, 84% of them have gone on to vocational dance studies. Several of the early cohorts are now working professionally in companies such as New Adventures and the BalletBoyz and I’m sure that this experience helped to pave the way for that early career success.  

It was clear that the dancers had gelled remarkably well in their two residency periods (in October and February) and the collectivism of such a diverse group of dancers was well-marshalled by Eyal into a challenging, atmospheric and organic experience, with the large ensemble often moving as one, in the same way as a flock of starlings soars with immutable precision through the dusky sky. These few moments of flight were well worth the fight to keep one’s eyes open.