For the end of their London Christmas season, English National Ballet dive into Strictly Gershwin with a will. Derek Deane’s production blends ballet and ballroom, with a dollop of tap dancing and a fair bit of padding. The dancers do it all with care and attention. At the back of the American in Paris crowd scenes, you can spot corps dancers giving their steps a flirtatious edge.
That wasn’t always the back row. Strictly Gershwin started out as an arena show, created for the Royal Albert Hall and danced in the round. It was then revised for conventional theatres.The orchestra now sit at the back of the stage, conducted by Gareth Valentine. His arrangements of the Gershwin numbers are in big band style, with a swagger. The Maida Vale singers provide solo and close harmony vocals.
Deane’s choreography is a mixed bag. There are some fluent duets, but his big crowd dances sag and bustle. An American in Paris is a jumble of onion-sellers, cancan girls and bicyclists, with the central romance overwhelmed by all the fuss. It was always thin, but worked better on an arena stage. Anaïs Chalendard and Estaban Berlanga do their best with Deane’s posing and rhubarbing.
Rhapsody in Blue, staged as a tutu number, comes off better. Dancing with flowing lines and crisp phrasing, Erina Takahashi and Zdenek Konvalina give Deane’s neat, conventional dancers some depth. Designed by Roberta Guidi di Bagno, the tutu skirts shade from deep to bright blue, sparkling with crystals.
Guest tap dancers Douglas Mills and Paul Robinson have a thumping approach to their numbers, stomping out steps without much variety. Surprisingly, the company’s own dancers have more fun with tap steps than the visiting specialists do.
Throughout the evening, the pas de deux work best. Deane has soloists emerge from the corps and vanish again, taking a moment in the spotlight. In their opening number, Shiori Kase and Vadim Muntagirov mix ballet and Latin American styles with gusto, letting hips swing. Takahashi and Konvalina are stylish in Someone to Watch Over Me, with some lovely curling lines. Elena Glurdjidze dances The Man I Love with yearning warmth, partnered by Arionel Vargas. Summertime is set up as a star number. Muntagirov and Daria Klimentová dance it with serene ease, floating through the overcomplicated lifts.
English National Ballet have had a lot of Strictly Gershwin lately, from last summer’s Royal Albert Hall performances to this long winter tour. If the dancers are frustrated by this limited repertory, they’re not letting it show.
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