Linbury Studio Theatre, Royal Opera House, London, UK; March 8, 2014
Young British Dancer of the Year creates a very special atmosphere in the Linbury Studio Theatre. The air is alive with anticipation and nervous energy but warmed with a generous dollop of good will. YBDY is unique among ballet competitions in its defined national criteria – the competitors have to be British or have studied in the UK for the last three years – giving rise to the feeling of ‘home team’ support. However the students, especially the young men, were encouragingly representative of the vibrant cultural mix of twenty-first century Britain.
The winners were all men, and the prizes well deserved, but as this was International Women’s Day it was disappointing that the women didn’t do better. 17 year-old Erik Woolhouse was the winner. His Albrecht was a class act: fine technique interpreted with sorrowful classical demeanour. His solo from “Le Corsaire” made a bold contrast. Bare-chested and dressed in silvery oriental pants; his courageous attack brought him right to the edge of the red danger zone but he nailed each virtuoso challenge: enthusiasm tempered by technique – an admirable skillset for a young professional. Second prize went to Joseph Sissens. His choices, James from “La Sylphide” and the “Swan Lake” Pas de Trios male variation, showcased his joyful elevation, precision beats and needle sharp feet. Nicholas London came in third, only 15 years-old and one of the youngest candidates, he displayed enormous promise. His technique showed competence above his years and he worked with quiet confidence and stylish presence as displayed in his Basilio.
My prize for best tours en l’air – perfect fifth to fifth – went to Jerome Barnes who gained a commendation as did Scott McKenzie who scored with an eye-catching arabesque and well controlled balance. The Sibley Dowell Award for potential went to Ricardo Castellanos who boosted his “Don Quixote” solo with a powerhouse jump and a dash of showmanship.
I wish the women had shown more courage and dared to ‘dance out loud’. So many of the solos were painfully slow and rather precious. Only Connie Vowles, a Giselle of genuine warmth and a perky Spring Fairy, bolded stood out from the ensemble of fairies. There was clear evidence of fine training in all the young women’s beautifully placed legs and feet and their aesthetically pleasing proportions will certainly land them a good ballet job. However I was left with the uncomfortable feeling that they were preparing themselves for the corps de ballet while the men were preparing themselves for stardom. At the first YBDY in 2000, I had a similar feeling but over the intervening years an exciting flush of female talent has emerged from the competition. I hope it is not the absence of that bravest of women, Gailene Stock, that is the cause, as I am sure her spirit is still alive in the Royal Ballet School.
This fifteenth presentation of the Awards, was dedicated to Stock founder of the competition, now regrettably away from the scene as she battles illness. Mavis Staines, chair of the jury and artistic director of Canada’s National Ballet School, gave a moving tribute to the work that Stock and her team have done to transform professional training in this country.
The entire group of 16 finalists were from the Royal Ballet School but in the second half, Elmhurst School for Dance and the English National Ballet School had their chance to perform, offering a flamenco piece, “Transito”, and a touch of Bournonville in the Balabile from “Napoli”. Both were danced with great spirit. ENB principals Laurretta Summerscales and Junor Souza danced a thrilling pas de deux from “Le Corsaire”, which saw no shortage of fireworks, but that was also delivered with refreshing ease and elegance. It was inspiring to see Summerscales, who only a few years back was herself a YBDY finalist, now returning as an established star.