Arts review of 2011 - Dance: How ballet became a blast again

Wayne McGregor's fiery new work stepped out of dance's comfort zoneI and re-energised the form

It was a year when dance leapt from stage to screen and on to the news pages.

The film Black Swan – an enjoyable if lurid psychological thriller whose plot hung on a dancer's determination to conquer the lead role in Swan Lake – split opinion between those who felt it was high time ballet got a slice of the Hollywood cake, and others who thought it a howling travesty.

Thanks to staggered launch dates either side of the Atlantic, debate rumbled on for months, reviving after the Oscars with a squabble over the exact percentage of dancing done by Natalie Portman, who won Best Actress for her "transformation into a ballerina". Hmmm, said the people who dance for a living. The real howler in this critic's view was the "progressive" production of Swan Lake presented in the film, which was so dull it sorely undersold the art form. On stage, meanwhile, ballet companies devised other ways of reducing their appeal to a grown-up audience.

Four legs good

When funds are tight, don an animal costume. That seemed to be the response of most British ballet companies to the slashing of Arts Council subsidies. Aside from the usual Nutcrackers and Cinderellas, there were two Alice in Wonderlands, two Beauty and the Beasts, Peter and the Wolf and a Beatrix Potter. Less prettily, and for far too short a run at the Linbury Studio, Edward Watson put in an extraordinary performance as an insect, oozing brown juice, in Arthur Pita's take on Kafka's Metamorphosis.

More balls than a tennis match

Most tedious experience was without doubt Un peu de tendresse, a visiting show from Canada so desperate to get a reaction – any reaction – that it sent naked male dancers out into the stalls to sit on punters' laps.

Most baffling career move

In October, the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow reopened after the most expensive refurb ever ($700m!), only to find that its most-prized principal ballet couple, real-life lovers Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev, had jumped ship for a less prestigious outfit.

Best new choreography

As ever, Wayne McGregor seemed to find more hours in the day than other mortals. In May, he made a stunning contribution to a Royal Ballet triple bill with Live Fire Exercise, inspired by the controlled explosions used in military training. The dancers' movements, while more or less classical, were informed by the way soldiers are trained to deal with shell blasts. It's thrilling when ballet reaches out beyond its self-reflecting bubble.

Equally memorable was Akram Khan's Desh, a vastly ambitious, love-hate homage to his father's homeland, Bangladesh, in which Khan span yarns, climbed magic trees, and movingly played both himself and his dad.

Times past

Best revival of the year was Dance Umbrella's mesmeric restaging of Lucinda Childs's seminal Dance, from 1979, a non-stop head trip of running and twirling lines.

R.I.P.

In July, days before a season of his work at English National Ballet, the choreographer Roland Petit died at 87. In tribute, Russian star Ivan Vasiliev (see above) offered his services free to ENB, delivering a benchmark performance of Petit's Le jeune homme et la mort.

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