2018 has been another great year for dance. For this writer, it amounted to 192 shows, seen in almost fifty theatres, across ten countries; and I would happily repeat the whole year again (although I might absent myself from just a handful of productions, the second time around)!  

Marianela Nuñez (Giselle) and Federico Bonelli (Albrecht) in The Royal Ballet's <i>Giselle</i> © ROH, 2018 | Helen Maybanks
Marianela Nuñez (Giselle) and Federico Bonelli (Albrecht) in The Royal Ballet's Giselle
© ROH, 2018 | Helen Maybanks

Many abiding memories are of place, such as Christiana Stefanou’s beautiful late evening gala under the stars in Heraklion’s open-air garden theatre or the accurately-named Thursford Christmas Spectacular staged in an impressive theatre built alongside a Norfolk village where the 130 performers almost outnumbered the resident population (205). Other enduring memories are of individuals, including Alina Cojocaru’s unique interpretation of The Sleeping Beauty for English National Ballet; Cristina Dijmaru and Ovidio Matei Iancu of Opera National Bucharest as the Queen and Rothbart in Gheorghe Iancu’s Swan Lake (like never seen before); Sergio Bernal’s heightened passion as Ricardo Cue’s The Swan at The Russian Icons Gala in the London Coliseum; Sasha Mukhamedov’s sensational performance of Nikiya’s death solo, in Crete; Carlos Acosta’s celebration of thirty years in dance at The Royal Albert Hall; and the sublime artistry of another ENB dancer, Katja Khaniukova, showcased at the Opera House in her native Ukraine, through a double bill that married the virtuosity of the Paquita Grand Pas  with her seductive charm as Scheherazade. 

But, if I could choose just a dozen works to see again - one for each day of the Christmas season – what would they be?   It’s a tough choice that has kept me awake at night but here is the dazzling dozen that created memories so indelible that they will stay with me – I hope – forever.  Placing them in some kind of hierarchy would have culled any remaining fragments of sleep and so I have taken the much easier option of presenting them in the time-honoured order of the alphabet! 

R. Maliophant and D. Mbi in <i>Critical Mass</i>, Maliphantworks2 © Tom Bowles
R. Maliophant and D. Mbi in Critical Mass, Maliphantworks2
© Tom Bowles

Ballet Cymru: A Child’s Christmas, Poems and Tiger Eggs at the Lilian Baylis Studio, Sadler’s Wells, London (November)

This celebration of the work of Dylan Thomas came in a series of powerful vignettes danced to his poetry, followed by a one-act narrative, interpreting his glorious prose reflections of A Child’s Christmas in Wales. Performed by Ballet Cymru in choreography by the company’s founder, Darius James, together with Amy Doughty, it was enhanced by Mason Neely’s complementing music and the ineffable uplift of these evocative words being spoken live by the soothing, honeyed voice of Cerys Matthews. A Child’s Christmas, Poems and Tiger Eggs was a performance of nostalgic charm in which all the elements interlaced to create a perfect capsule – as good as the Tardis – taking us to another time and place. This unique presentation of Thomas’s words is a superb cultural achievement in its own right.   

Biały Teatr Tańca: Eurydyka w Piekle (Eurydice in Hell) at Teatr Wielki, Warsaw (November)

Izadora Weiss has carved a unique tributary in the flooded landscape of contemporary dance. Influenced by her mentor, Jiří Kylián, her work also holds meaning in every phrase but, unlike Kylián, it invariably supports a narrative structure. Her latest piece, Eurydice in Hell completes a trio of works inspired by Greek mythology (and it was paired in this double bill with Phaedra, the beginning of that series) but – in typical Weiss fashion – the story has been updated and the ‘hell’ confronting Orpheus is a modern-day cult into which Eurydice has been seduced. The work opens and closes with a Calabrian folk song enveloping two string quartets that have a powerful synergy, as if meant to co-exist: the first by Karol Szymanowski followed by Shostakovich’s Seventh.  Separating them is Eugène Ysaÿe’s complex and emotional Georges Enescu violin sonata, played live onstage by the choreographer’s 16-year-old daughter, Weronika Weiss, with impressive virtuosity: an apt metaphor for this young company delivering an impressive, raw performance of challenging material.  

Charlotte Ballet: The Most Incredible Thing at the Knight Theater, Charlotte, North Carolina (March)

The Charlotte Ballet in De frutos'<i>The Most Incredible Thing</i> © Jeff Cravotta | Courtesy of Charlotte Ballet
The Charlotte Ballet in De frutos'The Most Incredible Thing
© Jeff Cravotta | Courtesy of Charlotte Ballet

It is a delicious dance oxymoron – truly, an incredible thing - that one of the most controversial and courageous choreographers of the modern age, Javier de Frutos, has also created a contender for the best new family ballet of the 21st Century.   Based upon a lesser-known fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen, The Most Incredible Thing premiered at Sadler’s Wells in 2011 but disappeared after a 2012 performance in Austria.   Step forward Hope Muir, recently appointed artistic director at Charlotte Ballet, who, together with de Frutos – in a feat of detection worthy of Hercule Poirot – tracked down boxes of remaining costumes and artefacts and built a new set to enable this wonderful revival. The production has evolved impressively with de Frutos having made changes that add clarity, style and purpose. It is now slick, fast-paced, funny, poignant and unashamedly romantic, providing uncomplicated entertainment for children and the adults they bring with them. It also enjoys tremendous digital effects by Tal Rosner, excellent lighting by Lucy Carter, and the most delectable and descriptive original score by Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe (aka The Pet Shop Boys).

English National Ballet: Lest We Forget at Sadler’s Wells, London (September)

Perhaps the hardest decision was to choose just one performance by ENB – other serious contenders included coruscating performances of Le Jeune Homme et la Mort (coupled with a vivacious production of La Sylphide) and the ebullience of William Forsythe’s Playlist (Tracks 1,2) in the excellent Voices of America programme. But, Lest We Forget has a seminal significance that cannot be ignored. Back in 2014, it was the inaugural programme of newly-commissioned works by first-time artistic director, Tamara Rojo; created to mark the centenary of the outbreak of World War One. It returned to celebrate a hundred years since the end of that horrific conflict, coming back even more powerfully than before. Three stunning works, complementing each other as a meaningful triptych, by Liam Scarlett (No Man’s Land), Akram Khan (Dust) and Russell Maliphant (Second Breath), bring extraordinary symbolism to express the horrors of this most challenging of subjects, enlivened by inventive designs and soul-touching sound; including more Dylan Thomas with looped words from his poem Do not go gentle into that good night (in Second Breath). When they come to write a history of British ballet then this programme will surely merit a chapter all of its own.

Germán Cornejo: Tango After Dark at The Peacock Theatre, London (March)

Partnered dance cannot get better than this. Former tango world champion Germán Cornejo premiered a new show of non-stop, slick and exhilarating entertainment; creating the perfect showcase for Astor Piazzolla’s unique Tango Argentino music, performed by an outstanding septet of musicians and two charismatic singers, marshalled – of course – by Piazzolla’s own instrument of choice, the bandonéon (a type of concertina, as essential to tango as the guitar is to flamenco). The melodic sensuality of Argentine tango, performed by ten stunning dancers, evoked the unique racial and cultural diversity in the famous milongas of Buenos Aires (such as La Viruta or Porteño y Bailarín). The most explosive dance came via Cornejo and Gisella Galeassi, another former world champion: the lightning speed and precision of their interspersed legs peppered with a rich variety of lifts, including one-arm presages, and scintillating spins in hold. It may have been ice-cold in snowy London but for a couple of hours at the Peacock Theatre it was midnight in steamy Buenos Aires.

Het Nationale Ballet: Dutch Doubles at the Nationale Opera & Ballet, Amsterdam (March)

Yuanyuan Zhang and Matin Ten Kortenaar in <i>Impermanence</i>, Dutch Doubles, Dutch National Ballet © Hans Gerritsen
Yuanyuan Zhang and Matin Ten Kortenaar in Impermanence, Dutch Doubles, Dutch National Ballet
© Hans Gerritsen

This simple idea of pairing Amsterdam-based choreographers with local composers and designers created a programme that was entirely made in the Netherlands, featuring live music played onstage throughout. It opened with Ernst Meisner’s Impermanence, a soft, poetic and haunting piece for ten dancers, followed by back-to-back duets: the first, an enigmatic male pairing, entitled Two and Only, from a young woman choreographer, Wubkje Kuindersma, hitherto unknown to me; and a revival of Déjá Vu, by the doyen of Dutch choreography, Hans van Manen. The evening closed with the premiere of Last Resistance, marking the return of Annabelle Lopez Ochoa to Dutch National Ballet after a hiatus of eleven years with a non-narrative work for 32 dancers, sharing the stage with the Dutch pop star, Wende and her band. Lopez Ochoa moves this large cohort of dancers fluidly by orchestrating a multitude of simultaneous movements to appear as an organic whole. The work’s principal soloist is Wende, the singer moving confidently amongst the dancers, even partnering them, performing her own movement solos. This mesmerising evening was an ideal celebration of the equality of music and dance.   

Les Ballets de Monte Carlo: La Mégère Apprivoisée (The Taming of the Shrew) at the Grimaldi Forum, Monte Carlo (January)

What a way to open the year! Jean-Christophe Maillot’s The Taming of the Shrew was created on the Bolshoi Ballet, in 2014, and later translated onto his own dancers at Les Ballets de Monte Carlo, a company that impresses all the more at each new viewing.  The transition from Moscow to Monte Carlo was lock and stock but with a different barrel, since Maillot took the opportunity for revision, notably at the beginning of Act 2. His choreography is both sentimental and challenging, mixing romance, eroticism, irony, humour and Shakespearean misogyny into a rich array of well-structured imagery and symbolism. It is enhanced by an impressive patchwork of Shostakovich’s music, taken from several of the composer’s film scores and symphonies, very effectively co-ordinated to provide an outstanding composition, including the familiar Tahiti Trot, better known as Tea for Two, which Shostakovich orchestrated, from memory, in under an hour to win a bet and later incorporated into his ballet, The Golden Age.   

E. Petina and M. Urban of Les Ballets de Monte Carlo in <i>The Taming of the Shrew</i> © Alice Blangero
E. Petina and M. Urban of Les Ballets de Monte Carlo in The Taming of the Shrew
© Alice Blangero

Má Vlast at The Old Town Square, Prague (June)

As well as World War One, 2018 represented the centenary of the creation of several new nations, including Czechoslovakia (now separated into the Czech Republic and Slovakia). This founding of Czechoslovakia was celebrated in this one-off ballet, commissioned by Adriana Krnáčová - Mayor of Prague – and choreographed by Jiři Bubeníĉek (his twin brother, Otto, another former principal dancer, designed the costumes). Appropriately, the ballet was based on – and performed to – Bedřich Smetana’s Má vlast (My homeland); six symphonic poems that were inspired by the legends and landscape of Bohemia. Bubeníĉek’s world premiere, performed by an international cast of guest dancers, enjoyed the exclusive advantage of being staged - on a sultry summer’s evening – in Prague’s Old Town Square. Rarely can a work have been performed in a place better suited to its purpose, with statues of heroic figures referenced in Smetana’s music staring down on work interpreting their deeds. Smetana only ever imagined his music since he had lost all hearing before completing the first poem, Vyŝehrad (High Castle), at the end of 1874. The recording used was of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra being conducted by Jiři Bĕlohlávek, the leading interpreter of Czech classical music, who had recently died. An emotional evening on so many levels.

Richard Alston Dance Company: Mid Century Modern at Sadler’s Wells, London (March)

N. Bodych and E. Braund in Richard Alston's <i>Carnaval</i> © Chris Nash
N. Bodych and E. Braund in Richard Alston's Carnaval
© Chris Nash

Mid Century Modern is both the name of the overall programme and its final work, a well-constructed platform that pieced together excerpts from seven dances, essentially covering all five decades of Alston’s choreography to date. The programme also included Martin Lawrance’s fast-paced Cut and Run and Alston’s recent homage to Frederick Ashton in Carnaval. Mid Century Modern embraces Alston diverse trademarks: pitch-perfect musicality; fast, fluid movement in pure dance; an economy of substance in set design; and a consistency of movement style. There is a thin line between the maintenance of a stylistic continuum and repetition but Alston traverses the challenge like Blondin crossing the Niagara gorge on a tightrope; all achieved with remarkable clarity of style, in the simple beauty of flowing movement. It is a programme that gained extra sentiment for being the final performances of Liam Riddick as a company member; and with the subsequent announcement of the company’s closure in 2020.      

 

Russell Maliphant Company: Maliphantworks2 at the Print Room at The Coronet, London (March)

This second programme of Russell Maliphant’s greatest hits, confirming his monopoly over dance programming at this quirky theatre was a feast of Maliphant’s unique movement style. His second life as a Rolfing practitioner brings an intimate knowledge of the human body’s internal engineering (to be further explored and analysed in his forthcoming Silent Lines), which underpins a special dance language that manages to be both elegant and strong, fluid and firm, tight and flexible. This was an evening of duets (plus the bonus of a film), ranging from Critical Mass (1998), danced by Maliphant and Dickson Mbi, to a new dance for Maliphant and his partner, Dana Fouras. Another highlight was the revival of Two Times Two, in which Fouras and Grace Jabbari occupy Michael Hulls’ boxes of light, both isolated and blurrily entwined. The fact that this programme (in this unusual venue) earned five nominations in the 2018 National Dance Awards speaks volumes for its formidable quality.

The Royal Ballet: Giselle at The Royal Opera House, London (January)

Marianela Nuñez in The Royal Ballet's <i>Giselle</i> © ROH, 2018 | Helen Maybanks
Marianela Nuñez in The Royal Ballet's Giselle
© ROH, 2018 | Helen Maybanks

Another tough choice from a year’s outstanding repertory at The Royal Ballet. La Bayadère, Manon, Mayerling, Les Patineurs, The Nutcracker and Liam Scarlett’s new Swan Lake were all worthy of consideration, as was the excellent triple bill to celebrate Leonard Bernstein’s centenary; but, it was the first ballet to open in January that set the exceptional standards for the whole year. Peter Wright’s evergreen and delightful production of Giselle has achieved a rich patina from over 30 years’ of experience,  passed on through a continuum of expert coaching and enlivened by the ongoing enquiry of new interpretations from dancers coming fresh to the ballet. Add the relatively recent facelift given to John Macfarlane’s designs (2011) and here is the recipe for that magical space between opposing poles of tradition and innovation from which great performances are mined. Marianela Nuñez delivered a quintessential interpretation of the title role, confirming this as a defining performance of this greatest of Romantic ballets. 

Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui & Shantala Shivalingappa: Play at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, South Bank Centre, London (September)

Shantala Shivalingappa and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui in <i>Play</i> © Koen Broos
Shantala Shivalingappa and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui in Play
© Koen Broos

A tremendous example of the fascinating hybridity that can arise from the alchemy of expanding the boundaries of dance through otherness and interculturalism. This was a performance that not only brought the best of both partners but added some indefinable extra. Play is a play on words, interrogating diverse influences of both role play and playing games; but given boundless potential by the refined aesthetic of Shivalingappa’s kuchipudi language and the elastic unpredictability of Cherkaoui’s movement. It is also a work full of delightful surprises – fascinating spoken text, giant puppets, Cherkaoui playing the harp, the saccharine ballad from Disney’s Aladdin, sung by the pair with an understated elegance. It was a rich mix of uplifting entertainment. Pina Bausch suggested this partnership and it is indeed a match made in dance heaven.