2015 was an exciting and controversial year in the world of dance. There were retirements, notably of the Royal Ballet principal Carlos Acosta and global dance star Sylvie Guillem; there were highly-anticipated debuts, such as that of British rising star Francesca Hayward in The Royal Ballet’s Romeo and Juliet; and there was tragedy, such as the death of Jonathan Ollivier, one of the most accomplished dancers of his generation, in a motorcycle accident. This year also saw musical theatre choreography reach new heights, with productions of An American in Paris on Broadway and UK tours of Hairspray and Oklahoma! enticing classically trained dancers from the ballet barre to the world of jazz dance. Here are five of the stand-out dance productions of this year:
- Hairspray, UK tour – choreographed by Drew McOnie
Hairspray is a show about, amongst other things, dance and the joy of doing what you love. A production without energetic and original choreography can quickly unravel, but even the most vibrant of choreography can risk being overshadowed by Marc Shaiman’s lively score. In Paul Kerryson’s production, however, which opened at Leicester’s Curve in September prior to a national tour, the star is Drew McOnie’s dynamic and gloriously creative choreography. McOnie is fast becoming one of the dance world’s most sought-after choreographers, and his work is excellently executed in this production by a talented ensemble, particularly by Layton Williams (who was the first mixed-race actor to play Billy Elliott in the West End). There are several famous faces in this production of Hairspray, but it is McOnie’s choreography that really provides the star quality.
- Romeo and Juliet, Royal Opera House – choreographed by Kenneth MacMillan
This year marked the fiftieth anniversary of the premiere of Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet, which was first danced by The Royal Ballet in 1965, starring Rudolph Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn as the star-crossed lovers. In this magnificent revival, Australian dancer Steven McRae and American ballerina Sarah Lamb took on the leading roles, although it was the young British dancer Francesca Hayward, who alternated as Juliet, who sent the critics wild. Featuring sumptuous costumes, towering sets, a timeless score by Prokofiev, and MacMillan’s legendary choreography, Romeo and Juliet was the stand-out production in an arguably hit-and-miss year for The Royal Ballet.
- The Car Man, UK tour – choreographed by Matthew Bourne
2015 also marked the fifteenth anniversary of the premiere of Matthew Bourne’s The Car Man, a reimagining of Bizet’s Carmen set in 1960s America. Bourne’s company, New Adventures, toured the production earlier this year prior to a season at Sadler’s Wells, although the final performance was cancelled due to the tragic death of leading man Jonathan Ollivier only hours before he was due onstage. The production blended modern and jazz dance with ballet, resulting in high-octane, experimental and immensely challenging choreography that was executed superbly by the large, talented ensemble. Zizi Strallen has been nominated for a National Dance Award for her performance as the principal female, and is currently playing the title role in the UK tour of Mary Poppins.
- Sleeping Beauty, UK tour – choreographed by Matthew Bourne
2015 was a busy year for New Adventures, who also produced an outstanding revival of their 2012 production of Sleeping Beauty. The final part of Bourne’s Tchaikovsky trilogy (which also features his gender-bent Swan Lake and modernised Nutcracker!), Sleeping Beauty toured the UK before a Christmas season at Sadler’s Wells in London. The ballet, billed as a gothic romance, is largely performed barefoot, and spans a 120 year period from 1890 to 2011. There were the usual dazzling sets and period costumes that one expects from a Bourne production, but the truly impressive element of this production was Bourne’s ability to give classical ballet a spontaneous, contemporary feel, dispensing with pointe shoes to give his female dancers real freedom of movement and expression.
- 1984, UK tour – choreographed by Jonathan Watkins
The ultimate dance event of the year was, for me, Northern Ballet’s world premiere production of George Orwell’s 1984. Northern Ballet was recently crowned Best Company at the Taglioni European Ballet Awards, and it is famous across the world for its exquisite adaptations of literary classics into narrative ballets. It garnered success with last year’s tour of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, but reached new heights with 1984 this autumn. Combining contemporary and classical ballet with physical theatre, Orwell’s story was told impeccably by a supremely talented company of dancers, accompanied by a haunting score from Alex Baranowski. The desperate, passionate and impeccably executed pas de deux between Julia (Martha Leebolt) and Winston (Tobias Batley) that closed the first act was a feat of choreographic artistry that I felt privileged to witness.
Although 2015 is now over, there are plenty of exciting dance events coming up in 2016: the premiere of Liam Scarlett’s first full-length narrative work for The Royal Ballet, an adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; the world premiere of Northern Ballet’s adaptation of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre; and Mr Wonderful, a one-off gala celebrating the life of Jonathan Ollivier at Sadler’s Wells.
Laura Jayne Bateman