Two very happy dancers. Emerging Dancer 2014 joint winners Alison McWhinney and Junor Souza.  Photo © ASH

Two very happy dancers. Emerging Dancer 2014 joint winners Alison McWhinney and Junor Souza.
Photo © ASH

Lyceum Theatre, London, UK; May 19, 2014

David Mead

Now in its fifth year, English National Ballet’s Emerging Dancer competition is an evening that acknowledges the company’s rising stars, and gives them a chance to shine in some relatively gentle competition. For the first time, this year’s event produced joint winners: Alison McWhinney and Junor Souza, with Souza also picking up the People’s Choice Award, voted for by the public. It’s a competition that really all about the accolade of the title. The prizes are not huge, the winners get £2,500, although they do also get to dance in a major gala later in the year. The recipient of the People’s Award takes away £1,000, and everyone else £500.

The competition features six of the company’s dancers: three men and three women, selected by a vote involving the company’s artistic, music and administrative staff. They are paired for a pas de deux, before each dances a solo of their choice. The judges are drawn from across the dance spectrum; this year’s panel comprising ENB Artistic Director, Tamara Rojo; former Royal Ballet principal dancer Deborah Bull; West End choreographers Gillian Lynne and Arlene Phillips, the latter perhaps better known these days best known for her time on the panel of “Strictly Come Dancing”; the ever ebullient dancer Wayne Sleep; and critic Clement Crisp.

The choices of pas de deux were interesting; my understanding being that they were suggested to the dancers by the company’s artistic staff. Senri Kou and Vitor Menezes, and Madison Keesler and Joan Sebastian Zamora, performed dances from Bournonville’s “La Sylphide” and “Flower Festival at Genzano” respectively. As Menezes pointed out in a video that preceded his later solo, Bournonville is rather more difficult than it looks, and it was certainly true that neither pas here was entirely satisfactory.

Alison McWhinney in David Dawson's 'A Million Kisses to My Skin'.  Photo © ASH

Alison McWhinney in David Dawson’s ‘A Million Kisses to My Skin’.
Photo © ASH

None of the four dancers seemed entirely at home, although all looked increasingly comfortable as their dance went on. Best of the four was Kou, who was a Sylph delicate in footwork and in expression. The fiendish Bournonville batterie was generally well executed, although the men in particular didn’t always have the sense of ballon that is required, and neither was as neat or light as should be case when travelling sideways across the stage using those quick pas de bourrées that the choreographer so liked. Elsewhere, limbs were sometimes misplaced, with legs extended much higher than would be expected in developpés and the working foot held too high on the leg in pirouettes.

It’s so true that what a dancer chooses (or gets) to perform in a competition can have a big influence on their chances of success or otherwise – and so it proved here. In a complete contrast of styles, Alison McWhinney and Junor Souza danced the pas de deux from Perrot’s “Esmerelda”. Full of fireworks, it could have been made for a competition or gala – and the couple certainly crackled and popped. They looked totally at home, despite the former’s later video comment to the effect that ‘it’s not really my sort of thing.’ Although they were supportive of all the dancers, only now did the audience really get going, Souza’s clean leaps and turns in particular bringing plenty of whoops and hollers. A few tambourine bashing lessons might be order for McWhinney, though. She struggled to get any sound out of it, and failed quite noticeably to strike it with either her foot or other hand on most occasions.

Best of the solos were those by Kou and McWhinney. In John Neumeier’s “Nocturnes”, Kou silenced the audience in a beautiful display full of delicacy, with her arms and face most expressive. Almost at the other end of the scale, McWhinney’s all too short excerpt from David Dawson’s “A Million Kisses to My Skin” was as jazzy and sparky as you could wish.

Junor Souza in his own creation, 'Last Minute'.  Photo © ASH

Junor Souza in his own creation, ‘Last Minute’.
Photo © ASH

Elsewhere, Vitor Menezes was full of Brazilian rhythms in his cheeky and samba influenced “Mambo Suite” (choreography by Ana Maria Stekelman); while in the more unconvincing and self-choreographed “Last Minute”, his compatriot Souza gave the impression of being constantly battered and buffeted by Catfish Row IV’s music. Zamora’s solo from Roland Petit’s “l’Arlésienne” is always difficult without the rest of the usual cast around, but his performance was as convincing as you could wish for. Keesler’s “Variations on a Theme” by Liam Scarlett was most expressionist.

Before the winners were announced, the audience were first treated to Nancy Osbaldeston dancing her own “Syke”, most notable for a striking opening that saw her in silhouette against bright orange, almost fire-like background. The highlight of the evening, though, was Laurretta Summerscales and James Forbat in the ‘bedroom’ pas de deux from Kenneth MacMillan’s “Manon”. Pas de deux often struggle for believability out of context, but there were no such problems here. Again the audience were so hushed you could have heard a pin drop, until that final embrace.

And so to the announcement of the winners, which was received with a huge roar from just about everyone present. Both broke into a huge grin – and why not!