Critics' Awards 1999 - Dance: Viktor victorious

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The Independent Culture
Nothing made an impact on dance lovers over the course of 1999 like the fact of the new Sadler's Wells - which is a bit tough on the four-fifths of the population who don't live within reach of it, but that's capital cities for you. No longer did major international companies give London a miss for want of a venue. They came thick and fast, many for the first time in decades, others making long-overdue debuts. Some of the best winged in from America, with Baryshnikov, San Francisco Ballet and the Mark Morris Dance Group bringing blasts of fresh air. A stunning week of Nederlands Dans Theater almost made up for having had to wait so long.

But first there was Pina Bausch and her Tanztheater Wuppertal (last in London 20 years ago), with queues for returns snaking up Rosebery Avenue - not dance fans but theatre students, for whom Bausch and her psychological excavations are seminal. She fully lived up to the legend. Yet what happened during the four-hour epic Viktor - on a stage banked on three sides by a vast, crumbling earthwork - mostly happened inside the audience's heads. What we saw was an odd sequence of sketches and theatre-games. What we took home was a skin-prickling awareness of life, joy, toil and organic decay. In quiet moments, in my mind's ear, I still hear the ominous patter of falling earth that made the barely perceptible soundtrack to those four hours. Britain's own Siobhan Davies makes more dancerly work, but it too triggers complex emotions that neither steps nor stagecraft can quite account for. Her best project was Wild Air - a profoundly romantic response to a strange, brutalist score by Kevin Volans for two cellos and two guitars. The alchemy worked: the result was stirringly beautiful and audiences loved it. Yet by most standards, Davies is a rarefied taste.

In the broader popular sphere, the hit of the year was NBT's touring Carmen, with a scenario by the late Christopher Gable and choreography by Didy Veldman - a dancer whose funky, barefoot style had formerly found its niche in smaller pieces for Rambert. It was a gamble to set her loose on a big ballet company, and it was a gamble for NBT's dancers to kick off their pointe shoes. Both paid off. This was a Carmen as bold and brassy and immediate as Bizet's score. And the inspired idea of making the toreador a rock star and setting Carmen's death in a bar with his gig blasting from the bar TV clinched the theatrical coup.

The Royal Ballet's administrative woes have been widely commented on; less so the quality of its dancing. Being homeless most of the time, it spent much of it overseas, but the few performances on home soil contained nuggets of gold. There was Sylvie Guillem's mould-breaking Giselle, which upstaged the grand opening of the Bolshoi the same night. There were memorable glimpses of a human jumpjet called Carlos Acosta (you almost wish he'd slow down so you could get a better look). And there was the quiet joy of seeing more of Sarah Wildor: the curds-and-cream blonde who, at 27, lights up everything she touches with a special, very English finesse. In January, her Fille mal gardee showed her as an exquisite comic actress; in July, her tremulous, sexy Ondine pulled an otherwise iffy work by Ashton into focus. Her fleet-footed debut in Sir Fred's impish Rhapsody earned her flying colours. Halfway through the year she was promoted to principal. I'd have done it sooner: she's a star.

Previous winners

1991 Yelena Pankova

1992 Irek Mukhamedov

1993 Yolande Snaith

1994 Adam Cooper

1995 The Royal Ballet

1996 Deborah Bull

1997 Birmingham Royal Ballet

1998 Ballet Rambert's Cruel Garden