Lilian Baylis Theatre, London, UK; September 19, 2014

Charlotte Kasner

On a sultry September night more like mid-July, it seemed mainly a family and friends gathering that had been tempted into a stuffy theatre for this triple bill of works by English National Ballet Associate Artist, George Williamson. Things did not get off auspiciously as, in spite of having no set and an unlucky 13 musicians, they went up late amid much shuffling and nervous tuning.

Musically, things did not improve. The shuffling may have made the orchestra comfortable but the tuning seemed to be to no avail as the intonation throughout was appalling. The programme notes stated that the “dancers and musicians are of equal standing,” but alas not of equal capability if this performance is anything to go by.

It was perhaps unwise for Williamson to have chosen such well-known pieces of music, although the lady who mused on whether “Appalachian Spring” was a new work commissioned for the company proves that there is always someone hearing it for the first time. Uninspiringly titled “Ballet for Nancy”, it seemed to be some sort of coming of age metaphor as Nancy Osbaldeston whirls round a suspended red balloon, dons the pointe shoes of maturity, then rejects them to play with the balloon.

Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, the squeaky opening of the orchestra was almost drowned out by the wheezing of the pea soup machine until the whole work was topped by a fug of smoke. Rather than suggest the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, it looked like an uncomfortable corner of a polluted third world city as the fog was pumped out relentlessly. It was not so much mystifying as mistifying.

Osbaldeston did her best to overcome the setting, her unflattering orange dress and the fact that she had less than a third of the stage to work in. She invested the choreography with a great deal of energy and a decent stab at characterisation. However, the work is too long to sustain the limitations of the idea and Williamson is overly fond of arms that are flung above the head and languorous stretches that repeat and repeat but go nowhere.

Matters perked up with “Adagio”, to Barber’s “Adagio for Strings”, by far the best thing in the evening. Jia Zhang and Max Westwell made a very moving pair as they draped around each other in fascinating cruciform shapes. Tasteful grey consumes were entirely appropriate, although again, the dancers deserved a bigger share of the space. Westwell is maturing into an interesting dancer and was secure in his partnering, although he is not overly tall. The pall of smoke was allowed to clear too, although it made a return in the final work.

It was just a huge pity that the dancers (and audience) had to suffer the agonised playing of the music, not helped by some very odd rubato, presumably at the behest of the conductor. There was also a lot of noise as the musicians went into the wings.

There then followed a hiatus as a great deal of fuss was made in re-setting the musicians’ places for “Four on the Floor”. The stage hands needn’t have bothered. When the orchestra appeared they scraped and shuffled their chairs, fiddled with their fiddles, and then scraped their chairs along the dance floor again for good measure. This was all in preparation for a noisy work by Judd Greenstein who is much given to double-stopping, presumably in the assumption that it will make a thin collection of musicians sound weighty. Actually it was quite amusing to watch the cellists and the bass player scrape away for all the world as if they had entered a competition to see who could remove a chunk of burned pie crust from a dish. The remaining strings imitated lumberjacks hacking through green wood with a blunt saw.

Although the dancing space was still cramped, the new placement of the orchestra at least gave the dancers a bit more space along the front of the stage and they threw themselves into the ballet with great gusto. There were interesting moments with sharp teamwork, but Williamson was again let down by his port de bras. If only he could polish them, he would make some lovely shapes as he certainly has a knack for fluidity of movement and understands the need for contrast.

Despite the many concerns, the evening did have moments of promise, but Williamson and his dancers deserved much better support from the music and, perish the thought, might even have been better served by a recording. Constella may give equal weight to the music and dance, but even so, the orchestra need to learn some stage discipline and could do with being less prominent so that the dancers have a chance to shine.