Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, UK; March 23, 2015

Jinhao Zhang performs Dying Swan at English National Ballet's Emerging Dancer final.  Photo © ASH

Jinhao Zhang performs Dying Swan at English National Ballet’s Emerging Dancer final.
Photo © ASH

Maggie Foyer

“This is my favourite night of the year – the one I am most proud of” said Tamara Rojo, Artistic Director of the English National Ballet. Wise words: a company’s young dancers are its lifeblood and this was the night of the Emerging Dancer Award 2015 when eight of the most promising ENB dancers fight it out for the title. ‘Fight’ is probably not the right word as the dancers both on stage and in their short introductory videos, came across as real company members and genuinely supportive of each other.

Judging the four pas de deux and seven solos presented a challenge for the panel. Pas de deux, in the classical repertory, are showcases for the ballerina and can leave the male at a disadvantage. However this year the prize did go to a male dancer, Jinhao Zhang. I would also have given him the prize for the most entertaining short film, relating the story of his route into ballet. As a very skinny four year-old in Shanghai his mother decided to take him to Kung-Fu classes. Unfortunately the class was full but next door was a ballet class. “Come on in,” said the teacher, “it’s the same!”

Zhang performed a pas de deux from Don Quixote partnering a very confident Isabelle Brouwers. Apart from a few irregular moments in the partnering, both were on fine form and grew in confidence as each turn and balance hit the mark. Zhang’s technique has a quality finish and his joy in achievement is palpable. What may well have tipped the vote in his favour was his compelling contemporary solo. Using Saint-Saëns’ music, he choreographed a Dying Swan: the movement powerful, at times almost acrobatic, but with keen sensitivity to the musical phrasing.

Jeanette Kakareka in Lost in Thought. Photo © ASH

Jeanette Kakareka in Lost in Thought.
Photo © ASH

Vitor Menezes’ solo, Roland Petit’s Nutcracker solo to ETA Hoffman’s music, provided an excellent platform for both his strong technique and equally strong interpretation. For their pas de deux, he and Anjuli Hudson danced Satanella. This is a popular competition choice but its saccharine sweetness is better suited to junior categories and did them few favours.

Jeanette Kakareka, with exquisite legs and feet and a soulful demeanour, made a beautiful Nikiya until an unsteady moment in one of the arabesque turns unnerved her and she never quite recovered. Max Westwell as Solor, had the power for the big jumps but struggled to get a clean finish. Kakareka, had the best of the female solos in Juanjo Arques’ Lost in Thought; an inspired contemporary solo that gave opportunities to show both her quality of movement and expression. Katja Khaniukova, a newcomer who is making her mark in the company danced a very credible Medora with Ken Saruhashi, a non-competing partner standing in for James Streeter, who unfortunately sustained an injury.

It is always a thrill to have live music but with the musicians on stage I wonder whether the loss of crucial stage space and the indomitable Gavin Sutherland’s stiff neck – from having to conduct the orchestra at the back and watch the dancers in front – was worth it. Competitions, alas, need to prioritise the individual performance rather than the artistic whole. However it was a great treat to have Julia Richter accompanying the prize winners from last year, Alison McWhinney and Junor Souza, who gave a deeply felt rendition of Liam Scarlett’s pas de deux from No Man’s Land.

The other prize of the evening the People’s Choice Award, chosen by audiences across the UK, went to an overjoyed Laurretta Summerscales. And a mention for Laurent Liotardo whose films gave a succinct insight into each of the competitors. As these preceded the contemporary solos, which were new to most of the audience, details of what was to follow would have been helpful.