This year marks the sixth anniversary of English National Ballet’s (ENB) in-house competition : the Emerging Dancer Award. From a company of 65, eight dancers were chosen to compete against each other for the single prize – though there is also the People’s Choice Award, where the general public across the UK voted for their favourites in performances this season.

Jinhao Zhang in <i>Don Quixote</i> © ASH
Jinhao Zhang in Don Quixote
© ASH

The aim of the competition is to show off budding talent in the company, and to recognize the excellent nurturing of each ENB member. The dancers this year come from Germany, Brazil, China, Ukraine, America and the UK, as well as a non-competing Japanese, showing the diversity of nationalities in the company. Sadly, one of the nominees, James Streeter, had to drop out because of injury, and he was replaced by Ken Saruhashi who stepped in as Khaniukova's partner .

The evening took place at a packed Queen Elizabeth Hall on the South Bank and was introduced by Natasha Kaplinsky. The stage is very intimate and close to the audience, and was made even smaller with musicians from English National Ballet Philharmonic, who under the baton of Gavin Sutherland, accompanied many of the selections. This loss of space led to challenges for some of the male dancers who had to rein in their high leaps in order not to fall off the front of the stage.

The first competitor was Ukrainian Katja Khaniukova performing the ‘Pas d’ Esclave’ from Le Corsaire with Saruhashi. In the opening moments, the veiled Khaniukova presented demure assurance and musicality, and the removal of the veil revealed an animated face as she showed off speedy and accurate pirouettes. In her contemporary solo, Continuance choreographed by Christopher Marney, we saw another side of her as she danced with fluid abandon and lyricism, telling a story through her expressive movements.

The next duet was in sharp contrast –the pas de deux from Santanella, a 19th century stylised ballet à la Commedia dell Arte. American Anjuli Hudson and Brazilian Vitor Menezes gave a spirited performance, with good characterisation from Menezes. He was light footed and spritely and very attentive to his partner while she, as the focus of all these joyful leapings, acted more aloof, dancing with clear, clean technique. Later, wearing a black net sleeved top and hot pants, her solo, Insert Name, created by fellow ENB member Tamarin Stott, started slowly with sharply accented steps, and gradually gained speed, showing her flexibility. Menezes chose Roland Petit’s Nutcracker solo which, still strictly classical, makes sudden breaks to create angular quizzical stances and allowing him to show off his exuberant leaps and turns.

Isabelle Brouwers © ASH
Isabelle Brouwers
© ASH
Jeanette Kakareka, also from America, bravely performed the tricky and exacting ‘scarf’ pas de deux from La Bayadere with British Max Westwell. It’s a stunning moment which demands total precision – and which is best viewed from a distance. However, it proved a challenging task for them both. While each was proficient with the technical requirements and presented the regal style demanded, the stage was far too small for Westwell’s jumps, and a small fluff which brought her off-pointe, took away Kakareka’s confidence – a shame. Happily, her contemporary piece – Lost in Thought by Juanjo Arques –restored her smile as she performed the athletic solo, freed now from the tough classical restraints of Bayadère. Looking great in red t-shirt and jeans, Westwell’s solo showed off his physical strength in diagonal leaps and falls. However his chosen piece, Christopher Bruce’s Swansong, a powerful work about political rights and interrogation was tricky. In taking the role of the Prisoner, (out of context it has to be said), Westwell was not able to convince of the anguished emotions harboured in the tortured character. It became just another bravura role.

 No competition is complete without the popular bravura Grand Pas from Don Quixote, and the two final competitors, Isabelle Brouwers from Germany and Jinhao Zhang from China, were completely at ease with it and raring to go. Brouwers oozed personality and joy throughout, her technique assured and her smile wide. She is technically very tidy and presented herself well, especially in the flirtatious fan solo. Zhang is tall and slim and has obviously had good training, first in Shanghai, then at ENB School. He jumped high and was elegant throughout the pas de deux and was a good partner to his Kitri. (My only gripe here, as in some of the other pieces, was that wearing dark trousers on the badly-lit stage made it hard to appreciate some of the finer points of the dancers’ technique.) In their solos, Zhang performed his own version of Dying Swan which showed furiously wing-beating and many gymnastic feats that are popular in some Chinese ballet companies today. Throughout, he retained and demonstrated taut control and grace. Brouwers had a sparkle in her eyes as she performed Kenny Tindall’s Brotsjor and showed great control in her movements and attractive strong lines.

Jeanette Kakareka and Max Westwell © ASH
Jeanette Kakareka and Max Westwell
© ASH
Because of her obvious inner love of dancing which permeated both pieces, I decided in the interval that she would be the winner.

While the judges deliberated, we were treated to a stunning duet by last year’s joint winners, Alison McWhinney and Junor Souza who showed they totally deserved their titles. In an extract from No Man’s Land by Liam Scarlett, McWhinney poured out emotion, dreaming that her World War 1 soldier-lover had returned to her. She floated seemingly weightless as she was carried and caressed by Souza; he showing both power and tenderness in his dancing, and the audience gave them a rapturous reception.

Finally Tamara Rojo and the judges – Leanne Benjamin, Wayne Sleep, Michael Nunn, William Trevitt and Didy Veldman – came on stage to announce the winner: Jinhao Zhang, who said that he had only taken up ballet as the Kung-fu classes were full! The Peoples Choice Award went to Laurretta Summerscales for her excellent dancing in many of the company’s productions this season.