Linbury Studio Theatre, Royal Opera House, London, UK; May 29, 2014
Artistic Coordinator of Dutch National Ballet’s Junior Company Ernst Meisner describes his new job as, “Wonderful – a really fantastic challenge.” Casting the occasional eye in his direction at this performance suggested it’s a challenge he is enjoying immensely. And so he should, because this present Junior Company ensemble is clearly a very special, and very talented, group of young dancers.
The Company’s first visit to London featured a number of small dances and excerpts designed as a loose journey through ballet history. Each was introduced by the dancers via short films that were delightfully informal, especially when you consider that most were speaking in a second language.
Ballet, we were told, started in the French court, so what better place to start that a Minuet, a court dance from the time of ‘Sun King’, Louis XIV. Choreographed by Ernst Meisner and danced by Nancy Burer and Thomas van Damme it was a pleasant, if unexciting start.
The heart sank rather when the voice over next started to tell us that the language of ballet is French, there are five basic positions and dancers use counts, as if we were all total newbies to the artform. In fact, Canadian choreographer Eric Gauthier’s “Ballet 101” turned out to be an increasingly humorous crash course in classical ballet demonstrated by the ever-willing Daniel Montero. Having started with those five basic positions, Gauthier mixes and twists them increasingly inventively until he has 100 positions or movements. Montero’s increasingly put upon expression and sideways glances to the audience as he was asked to do increasingly challenging combinations were a delight. The 101st position? That’s a surprise, revealed only at the end.
Next stop on the whistle-stop tour was Russia. Standing out in such a talented group of young dancers takes some doing, but over the evening Beijing-born but Toronto-raised Jessica Xuan did just that. As Odette in the White Swan pas de deux from Rudi van Danzig’s production of “Swan Lake” she was delicate, graceful and vulnerable. Her sad looking eyes added perfectly to the dramatic effect. Dutch dancer Nathan Brhane proved a considerable and very able partner.
Packed with fireworks as it is, the pas de deux from Vaganova’s “Diana et Acteon” has understandably become a gala favourite – and one sensed that Michaela DePrince and Sho Yamada were really going for it. DePrince has a radiant, natural smile and uses it to full effect. She also has the strongest jumps among the women, But, while it’s fully understandable that dancers want to show off their athleticism, and while 180 degree and greater extensions on soaring grand jetés in pas like this have become de rigueur, there does comes a point when they become aesthetically unpleasing (especially when the legs are not even), and DePrince passed it. While Yamada has plenty of clean technique too, the bravura was a little lacking.
There was more Russian classicism in the pas de quatre from Peter Wright’s production of “The Sleeping Beauty”. In the preceding video, one of the dancers noted how it was fun to dance, but very technical. Fiendish would be more like it. It’s not only about tricky footwork, the women especially also have a great deal to do with their arms and hands. The quartet of Veronika Verterich, Wentao Li, Therese Davis and Daniel Cooke carried it off with aplomb, though. The height and cleanliness of Cooke’s entrechats were particularly notable.
No trip through classical ballet would be complete without a visit to Italy. A saltarello is an Italian folk dance noted for being light and gay. Ernst Meisner’s “Saltarello”, a dance for two couples, is just that. The choreography is as full of colour as the brilliant red and mustard-yellow of the ladies’ dresses. It’s packed with sharp footwork, which all four dancers demonstrated well; DePrince showing she can handle the quick, neat stuff pretty well too. “Dancing in fifth gear,” one of dancers put it in the video. Spot on – but fun with it.
Think of Dutch ballet, and you think of Hans van Manen. “Kwintet”, set to parts of Mozart’s “Gran Partita”, including the famous adagio, was created in 1974 for ballerina Alexandra Radius and four men. Structurally, it’s typical van Manen: everything is clear and ordered. Also typically, it’s about relationships. Jessica Xuan was delightful and looked perfectly at ease in the company of her companions. Although she dances with them, she is apart. Often there is a sense that she is almost playing with them. She was full of little smiles and glances, a twinkle in her eye, as if she knows they have eyes for her, and she is going to play it for all it’s worth.
Rounding off the evening, George Williamson’s ten-minute “Dawn Dances” gives each of the cast of eight moments in the spotlight in a quick-fire series of solos, duets and trios. Williamson’s structurally complex choreography matches perfectly the pacey barrelling and chugging along of New York composer Judd Greenstein’s vibrant and slightly minimalist woodwind and brass score. My only complaint? Nothing lasts for long enough. Maybe it’s being greedy, but I wanted more. I wanted it to be longer and I wanted to see more of each individual dance, especially a beautiful but all too brief slower duet for Xuan and Brhane that gives everyone a chance to take a breath. But the music is what it is, and it was a great way to send everyone home very happy indeed.
Each dancer usually spends two years in the Junior Company. This year, all six second years are going to the main Dutch National Ballet company, plus first year Wen Tao. Their future surely burns bright. Although two of the other first years will be leaving, the other three are going through to their second year.