English National Ballet’s early summer spectacular offers an evening of glamour, glitz and gorgeous gowns all neatly wrapped in the glorious music of the Gershwin brothers. Choreographed and directed by Derek Deane, it combines a medley of songs, music and various dance styles – classical ballet, ballroom and tap dancing --to suit every taste.
Strictly Gershwin, first staged in 2008, salutes the talents of George and Ira Gershwin whose toe-tapping music and lyrics have thrilled generations of theatre and moviegoers, and still stir the soul today. Watching this tribute to the golden age of Hollywood and Broadway, it often proved difficult to sit still in one’s seat and stem the longings to be down with the action on the dance floor.

© Michael Garner
© Michael Garner

Three big screens hung over the orchestra showing photos of such movie romantics as Bogart and Bacall, Hepburn and Spencer, Howard and Johnson, as well as those dances icons, Astaire and Rogers whose unique style has never been surpassed. The ENB dancers were expected –and mostly rose to the occasion--to tackle all forms of dance, from ballet to ballroom and tap with some boys showing their skills on roller-skates. However, in their tutus and pointe shoes, some of the classically trained dancers, though vital and energetic, still struggled to shake off the stiff balletic body-frame and loosen up to Gershwin’s rhythms. Small details like the way the fingers were held and stationary poses evidenced their strict schooling rather than the needed fluidity of musical theatre training. For the boys, it was easier and it was fun to watch the company’s 21 year old superstar Vadim Muntagirov from Siberia—a peon of pure classicism—enjoy himself in I’ve got Rhythm, with its freer, relaxed rather than rigid technique. However, he still had to do the crowd-pleasing fast turns a la seconde and a circle of razor sharp grand jetes around petite Erina Takahashi who whipped off speedy fouette turns.

By contrast, the guest ballroom dancers strutted their stuff with abandon and pizzazz, their snake hips swivelling this way and that, while stopping and starting with cut-throat precision and posturing, all the time paying intense attention to each other. Carmen and Bryon Watson were joined by two other couples and tore up the floor in rumbas and tangos as fast as their tight pants, long legs and killer heels would allow. And there were tap dancers too. Douglas Mills and Paul Robinson performed at speed and ease in silver lame suits— even tapping on the top of the grand piano. In the second half, Kerry Birkett joined them for Lady be Good in a ‘top hat and cane’ routine. She proved the find of the evening for she embodied the nuances, easy, smooth body action and style of a true tapper, so it was a surprise to read in the programme that she is a first artist in the ballet company. Soloists included the graceful Elena Glurdjidze with an ardent Arionel Vargas in The Man I Love, a fluid, supple Daria Klimentova and attentive Friedemann Vogel guest from Stuttgart, in a smooth as silk Summertime, as well as The Royal Ballet’s Tamara Rojo and Guillaume Cote from Canada who took the leads in An American in Paris and Rhapsody in Blue (beautifully played by pianist Jonathan Scott). Cote, a facsimile of Gene Kelly in affable good looks and snappy movement, and Rojo in cute Toni-perm wig danced out the powerful rhythms with chic style amidst the colourfully costumed Parisian inhabitants of nuns, sailors, artists, nursemaids and a postman on a bright red bicycle. These, like all costumes in the show were the design of Roberta Guidi di Bagno and included stunning electric blue wobbly tutus encrusted with Swarovski sparkles, and miniature leprechaun hats for Rhapsody and slinky 1920’s lame evening gowns for Shall we Dance?

The luxuriant voice of Maria Friedman reminded us of the richness and diversity of the two Gershwins’ talents in songs such as The Man I Love, Someone to Watch Over Me and the poignant But Not For Me. The four Maida Vale Singers contributed with beautifully pitched part and solo singing, while the ‘band’—the ENB orchestra, augmented here by jazz musicians played with gusto and polish under the exuberant direction of Gareth Valentine. Not only did he conduct but he also danced on the podium, hopping up and down like a rabbit before offering an impromptu Egyptian sand dance as rhythms grew stronger. Happily when the real dancing began, he became the serious conductor again, but he certainly entertained the audience with his antics.