Big Ballet UK in 'The Nutcracker Story' with Hannah Baines (Clara, right) and Jessica Bell (Rat Queen).  Photo © Daniel Jones

Big Ballet UK in ‘The Nutcracker Story’ with Hannah Baines (Clara, right) and Jessica Bell (Rat Queen).
Photo © Daniel Jones

Royal Ballet Upper School, London, UK; August 4, 2014

Charlotte Kasner

The headline performance at this year’s IDS Dance Teachers conference gala came from Big Ballet UK, who presented “The Nutcracker Story”.

A few months ago, Critical Dance published an interview with Daniel Jones shortly after his retirement from English National Ballet. He assured us that he wasn’t giving up dancing and promised to keep us up to date with his next project – and here it is.

Big Ballet was created for a Channel4 documentary which followed Wayne Sleep and Monica Loughman auditioning and rehearsing dancers for a version of “Swan Lake”. There were definitely those who asserted their conviction that ballet could and should only be practiced by those fortunate enough to have inherited ‘suitable’ genes and probably many who expected to snigger at the expense of what are rather offensively referred to as ‘plus size’ women (there were men in the Channel4 programme too, but not in this evening’s performance). Whilst it was not all plain sailing (what production is!), it did demonstrate that people with bodies that are far from the expected norm for ballet can attain a noticeable level of technique and of course have no reason to lack any of the other qualities required of a performer. All of the final selection of women had danced before and had either been actively put off by teachers because of their figures or felt that they could not continue. The passion and drive remained however.

“The Nutcracker Story” is their first commercial performance and has been sponsored by International Dance Supplies and friends, family and supporters who donated via their GoFundMe page to pay for the costumes.

Of course Daniel Jones is no stranger to community ballet projects and here, he has achieved a very balanced understanding of his dancer’s capabilities. He provides choreography that is at just the right level to enable them to be confident without worrying about technique but which showcases their personalities. The ballet is a quick flit through the Nutcracker story and manages to encapsulate drama, humour and fair bit of dancing.

Donna Hargreaves (left, smiling) and Big Ballet UK in 'The Nutcracker Story'.  Photo © Daniel Jones

Donna Hargreaves (left, smiling) and Big Ballet UK in ‘The Nutcracker Story’.
Photo © Daniel Jones

Here, Clara has a naughty sister, Rose, who is much more fun than the brattish Fritz. She is indeed a Rose with thorns, played brilliantly by Emma Louise Roby who stomps and glowers her way round, dashing Clara’s doll to the floor not once, but twice as she attempts to create mayhem whilst the serene Hannah Baines as Clara rises above it all.

Anyone who saw the Big Ballet documentary will not be surprised by the glorious innate grace that Hannah possesses. She is a real beauty with a port de bras that floats like oil on water. She has an understanding of épaulement too and here gave a thoroughly polished performance that belied her televised struggles in the rehearsal room.

Jessica Bell was a menacing Queen of the Rats in a very fetching outfit that would be the envy of many a mouse in most productions. Sarah Peart had the trouser role as the Nutcracker and one wonders if she has been a majorette in a previous life or whether she learned to twirl her baton for this production. Whichever it was, she did it without blemish – surely one of the most nerve-wracking moments of the whole production.

Jones chose two of the character dances from Act II to showcase his cast: the Spanish and the ever-popular Waltz of the Flowers. The Spanish dance was particularly well-executed and proved that it takes more than just technique to pull off exciting dancing. It was also infused with wit, and he devised a particularly clever way of relieving the ladies of their fans so as not to encumber them during the dance. How irritating it is when dancers throw props off stage with no dramatic reason and how it kills the atmosphere when supposedly solid props tumble to the ground with a plastic ‘plouf’. Another accolade here by the way to Emma Louise Roby who manages to turn a brisé fan into a potentially lethal weapon as she exits in triumph with her treasure!

The flowers were dressed in fetching, somewhat marine, dresses to weave the flower garden, where mention must be made of Donna Hargreaves who has a smile that could eclipse the sun! No Vaseline on the teeth here; this is a smile that wells up from the depths with sheer joy and what better advert for ballet can one ask for?

Big Ballet make me laugh and cry in equal measure. This is truly life-enhancing stuff which must give hope to so many women out there who just want to dance but who have been made to feel that they cannot or should not. Ethnic-blind casting has been practised for many years and proved that truly good performances can overcome superficial characteristics. It’s about time that the flag was flown for those of us who were not born with classically perfect bodies but who find in the execution and expression of ballet another type of perfection. Roll on the day when this company is not prefaced by the description ‘plus size’ but just by ‘dancers’.

Big Ballet rounded off what was a packed programme that opened with the ‘Alice and Knave’ pas de deux from Ballet Theatre UK, competently danced by Julia Davies and David Brewer. It was a pleasant-enough piece, if rather bland, danced to inoffensive music and costumed in white. It had a minor narrative of shy girl meets boy and ended with them exiting hand in hand in usual fashion.

A hiatus then ensued with the non-appearance of Kai Scanlan, world champion tap dancer. His music played to an empty stage for so long that one wondered how on earth he could make an entrance big enough to justify it. In the end, the space was filled by Mandy Montanez dancing a short contemporary work, again, competently executed, if unchallenging.

Kai Scanlan eventually managed to appear, a cheeky young lad dressed rather incongruously in a green baseball jacket with a distinctly 1950s flavour. He looked as if he had stepped out of a Norman Rockwell painting as he executed his dance with an air of insouciance that only such youth can muster and sauntered off, seemingly without a care in the world.

Scanlon dances with Tap Attack who presented the following piece costumed in an assortment of black and white with a slight suggestion of punk. Lacking the sense of danger that one associates with say Stomp or Tap Dogs, it was however reasonably well done, if hampered by dance flooring that is not designed for tap.

Matt Knight and Patrick Bauristhene then proceeded to come on and set the stage alight. Normally the words ‘hip hop duo’ would be enough to send me running a mile but this was terrific stuff. They have a mastery of technique that enables them to transcend mere presentation. The cheeky ‘look-at-me’ style of Kai Scanlan here matures into a witty ‘look-at-me-yeah-good-isn’t-it…have-some-more…that-you-didn’t-expect’. What would have been called a tumbling act in a music hall is here sharpened with the edginess of the street and the club. It left everyone wanting more in true music hall fashion.

IDS faculty member Rhimes Lecointe then fronted Boadicea with more street dance. Knight and Bauristhene would have been a hard act for anyone to follow but this was pretty woeful stuff. Up until now, all the performers looked self-assured and confident, but these dancers seemed self-conscious and were hampered by truly ghastly costumes that appeared to be T-shirts with an odd, cape-like attachment drooping at the back. The music was pretty dismal too.

Tap Attack then presented duo Matt Pidgeon and Josh Wakefield, who had taken gold and silver medals between them at the recent world tap event.