English National Ballet (ENB)’s Emerging Dancer competition gets bigger and better every year. The fifth edition took place at the Lyceum theatre (home of The Lion King musical) earlier this week, with six young company dancers performing a solo and pas de deux to battle for prestige and a cash prize.

Emerging Dancer contestants 2014 © Laurent Liotardo
Emerging Dancer contestants 2014
© Laurent Liotardo

Senri Kou and Vitor Menezes opened with a duet from La Sylphide. Whilst both gave pleasant individual performances, there was an unfortunate lack of chemistry between them. Madison Keesler and Joan Sebastian Zamora had a much greater connection onstage, giving a charming interpretation of August Bournonville’s Flower Festival. Keesler coyly batted her eyelids and balanced beautifully on pointe; Zamora teased her playfully and excelled in large jumps. Their well-considered characterisation and good grasp of the Bournonville style had me grinning from ear to ear.

Junor Souza © ASH
Junor Souza
© ASH

The third couple, Junor Souza and Alison McWhinney, performed the very technically-difficult Esmeralda pas de deux, and from the moment they stepped onto stage their assurance and rock solid partnering was evident. Entering with an enormous grand jeté split leap, Souza proceeded to lift McWhinney directly above his head as if she were weightless, and spin and support her effortlessly. His firework-style jumps and pirouettes were also dynamic and perfectly executed. McWhinney had a few wobbles (though nothing I haven’t seen from even the world’s best ballerinas) but was otherwise supremely poised and confident. The main disappointment was her performance of the famous Esmeralda tambourine solo, which was neat but lacking the panache the role needs.

McWhinney made up for earlier weaknesses in her second solo from A Million Kisses to my Skin. Wearing a simple leotard, she captivated the stage with David Dawson’s rippling contemporary movements. In Souza’s self-created Last Minute, he repeatedly twitched as if suffering from shell shock. Whilst not particularly interesting choreographically, the piece was expertly performed and showed Souza’s versatility.

Alison McWhinney © ASH
Alison McWhinney
© ASH

Keesler and Kou also gave impressive solos – from Liam Scarlett’s Variations on a Theme and John Neumeier’s Nocturnes respectively. The dancers played their roles with emotional conviction and were compelling onstage, but the lack of choreographic context for each slightly weakened their impact. Menezes and Zamora’s solos were well-performed, but neither particularly excited.

ENB’s dancers have a tough time preparing for the competition, as they rehearse in their own time around the company’s hectic schedule. Then in performance, they face not only an impressive line-up of judges, which this year included Arlene Phillips, Dame Gillian Lynne, Wayne Sleep and Deborah Bull, but also numerous critics and ballet aficionados. They also have to perform choreography to recorded music, out of its usual setting within a whole ballet, and on an empty stage.

The result seemed obvious to me and indeed Souza was crowned Emerging Dancer 2014. But the judges also saw fit to recognise McWhinney as well, who jointly shared the title. Souza also won the People’s Choice Award which is voted for by ENB audience members.

Junor Souza and Alison McWhinney, winners of Emerging Dancer 2014 © ASH
Junor Souza and Alison McWhinney, winners of Emerging Dancer 2014
© ASH

While the judges debated and deliberated, last year’s winners, Nancy Osbaldeston and Laurretta Summerscales, took to the stage. The former performed the upbeat self-choreographed Skye and the latter gave an impassioned interpretation of Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon bedroom pas de deux alongside James Forbat. These attractive performances weren’t exactly ballet masterclasses, but did demonstrate the massive improvements in strength, technique and confidence that can be gained following the Emerging Dancer competition.

I’d certainly like to see more of Souza, McWhinney and indeed all of the competition’s entrants. But I also have one other request for ENB Artistic Director Tamara Rojo – to put Manon back into the repertoire and give Summerscales the chance to dance the full-length ballet. Based on the little glimpse shown at the Lyceum, I suspect she’d be wonderful.