English National Ballet's arena show is an omnivorous, sequinned spectacle. This is a gala night, with ballroom stars from Strictly Come Dancing, splashes of ballet and tap, film clips and singing. It's variable, often incoherent, but held together by unusually high musical standards.
Strictly Gershwin was created by Derek Deane, the company's former director. He provides romantic duets and big corps de ballet numbers, while guest stars sweep in to sing or dance in other styles.
As a format, it hiccups along. Conductor and musical supervisor Gareth Valentine opens the evening with a sizzling overture, an arrangement of several Broadway numbers. Valentine, the evening's hero, dances along with the band, playing to the gallery while keeping the music fresh.
When Deane brings his dancers on, the pace slows to a crawl of static poses and winsome groupings. Individual numbers come off better. Deane's choreography is generic, a series of yearning or bouncy duets. But Agnes Oaks and Thomas Edur do yearn beautifully, floating through "The Man I Love".
Deane's biggest numbers are his weakest. "An American in Paris" lifts any number of ideas from the Gene Kelly movie. Tamara Rojo, its soloist, has fun switching from sweet 1950s heroine to vision scene vamp, while Guillaume Côté partners ardently. The pair return for "Rhapsody in Blue". The staging makes it a repetitive tutu number, but Côté and Rojo dance on a scale to fill the Royal Albert Hall.
The guest stars are a mixture. Douglas Mills and Paul Robinson do some heavy-footed and rhythmically dull tap dancing. Ballroom couple Lilia Kopylova and Darren Bennett have much more dash.
But the soprano Barbara Cook is the glory of the evening. Her phrasing has absolute assurance. Singing "But Not For Me", she keeps the song moving, never slowing for long notes until the end, when the last, sustained phrase hits with twice the punch. In this space, with a full-scale orchestra, Cook's warmth and presence makes Strictly Gershwin suddenly intimate.
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