In a week of intense and lengthy performances of Der Ring des Nibelungen, this Prom provided an antidote in the form of classical music inspired by or written for dance – after a purely instrumental first half, the second half of the concert brought dancers to the stage in a riveting, edge-of-seat intense combination of colour, rhythm and sound. The connection to Wagner was not entirely lost, however: “the apotheosis of the dance” – the theme for this Prom – is how Wagner described Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, played in the first half of the programme.

The Antonio Márquez Company performs with the BBC Philharmonic at the BBC Proms © BBC/Chris Christodoulou
The Antonio Márquez Company performs with the BBC Philharmonic at the BBC Proms
© BBC/Chris Christodoulou

The Prom opened with the world première of John McCabe’s Joybox, commissioned specially for this year’s Proms. It was not, as it transpired, based on dance, but on the jingles of a multitude of slot machines in an “entertainment centre” McCabe discovered whilst on a trip to Japan. He says: “Eventually, I seemed to perceive a kind of musical structural pattern to the label of noise and this gave me the idea for what I hope is an entertainment piece”. Dedicated to the composer Steve Martland, who died in his sleep earlier this year, the piece reflects Martland’s preoccupation with punchy rhythms and melodic patterns that subtly change over time: snippets of melody – some fanfare-like, some staccato and more complex – were first juxtaposed, then overlapped, then taken out of the structure and reinserted elsewhere later on. It was an interesting and exciting new piece that might have better reflected its inspiration if the orchestra had tackled the piece more feistily; as it was, their enthusiasm was barely felt.

There was a similarly flat start to the beginning of Beethoven’s Symphony no. 7 in A major, which began with a quite safe first movement. There were moments of liveliness and colour, but it was not a stand-out performance on the whole. Conductor Juanjo Mena elicited brooding darkness from the lower strings at the start of the second movement, and there was a good balance of subject and counter-subject in the fugue at its end. The pervading rhythm, seemingly inspired by the last two feet of dactylic hexameter (coincidence or otherwise, Homer’s Odyssey was one of Beethoven’s favourite books), could have been more dance-like; here, the rhythm was played more legato. A forward-moving Presto and a charismatically performed final movement gave a flavour of what was to come in this concert.

If the first half left anything to be desired, the second half exceeded all expectations. Joining the BBC Philharmonic and Mena was the Antonio Márquez Company, one of Spain’s most successful flamenco troupes. The Ballets Russes commissioned Manuel de Falla to write a work based on Diaghilev’s Andalusian fantasy Nights in the Gardens of Spain; not happy with the idea, he instead composed a work based on Pedro de Alarcón’s novel El sombrero de tres picos (“The Three-Cornered Hat”). Wearing country peasant outfits, the dancers hit the stage with unbounded confidence, their foot-tapping resounding round the hall alongside the music. Acting compounded the effect of the dancing – great humour was injected into several of the roles, and none more so than that of the Magistrate (Jairo Rodriguez), a lecherous old hunchback whose theatrical, crab-like creeping added to his character, and his effeminate Guard (Victor Donoso), who took every opportunity to titter and mince his way around. Together, they had the audience in stitches. More seriously, Mena’s careful attention to the dancers ensured that orchestra and dancers performed ensemble. Mezzo-soprano Clara Mouriz’s role provided but a small opportunity to display her powerful, beguiling voice.

Unannounced in the programme, we were then treated to a Flamenco Fantasy – no music; just dancers clapping and tapping, mesmerisingly building up the speed and volume, such that the rapturous applause which followed seemed like a natural progression from the end of the dance. The ensuing rendition of Ravel’s Boléro, originally written for his friend the ballet dancer Ida Rubinstein, was no ordinary one – a Proms favourite, yet one which many dismiss as boring and repetitive, the accompanying choreography here pushed its boundaries. The idea of the one long crescendo was expressed by the dancers, who used a combination of ballet, Spanish classical dance and flamenco to ratchet up the heat. It was sensual, passionate and fiery – enough to change any naysayer’s opinion. The audience certainly appreciated it, and when they shouted for more, they got more in the form of the last minute or two of the Boléro with yet more sinuous, colourful dancing alongside.

So, after a fairly flat first half, the lithe writhing of the dancers from the Antonio Márquez Company in the second half, combined with sharply focused playing made it clear that the dance had indeed received its apotheosis. It was truly unlike anything ever before witnessed at the Proms; for those who were not there, the performance will be broadcast on BBC 4 on Friday 2 August – unmissable viewing.

****1