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Northern Ballet Theatre

40th Anniversary Gala

by David Mead

December 12, 2009 -- Grand Theatre, Leeds, United Kingdom

Most anniversary galas tend to look back at reprise highlights from the company’s repertory. For Northern Ballet Theatre’s 40th birthday party though artistic director David Nixon preferred to present an eclectic mix of English and European dance of today including, unusually, pieces by all four English large-scale ballet companies. And what a sparkling evening it turned out to be.

There were a couple of nods towards NBT’s past in the opening scene setter that brought together characters from past favourites and later in Gillian Lynne’s new "On Such a Night," a gentle if rather unexciting ballet to the Sondheim song of the same title, and that had loud echoes of her earlier "A Simple Man."

More exciting was David Nixon’s new ballet for the evening, which showed a side of NBT all too rarely seen. "Powerhouse Rhumba" is full of punch and an 11-minute feast of fast, classical technique that matches the contemporary latin feel of Graeme Koehne’s score. Dressed only in very revealing skimpy shorts, leotards and sheer tights the dancers attacked the choreography, full of sharp, clean lines, with all the necessary drive and energy. Not for a minute should NBT forgo its storytelling, but this is a side of the company Nixon should show more of.

As if to prove just how versatile NBT’s dancers are these days, Victoria Sibson later gave an outstanding performance of choreographer of the moment Wayne McGregor’s challenging "Ossein."

With the company due to move into their new purpose built Quarry Hill complex in 2010, it was appropriate that their partners in the project, Phoenix Dance Theatre, joined in the fun. The excerpt from Sharon Watson’s "Fast Lane" was certainly that. The speed and physicality of the five mostly khaki-dressed dancers left one breathless as they moved around the stage as a group, in some ways independent but ultimately always reliant on each other. It is good to see this long-established company on the up once more.

The most spectacular ballet on show undoubtedly came from English National Ballet youngsters Shiori Kase and Vadim Muntagirov in the "Le Corsaire" pas de deux. It is remarkable to think that less than two years ago both were still at The Royal Ballet School. Kase is beautifully light and delicate with technique to match, and Muntagirov’s leaps need to be seen to be believed. They are definitely two to keep and eye on.

Despite Muntagirov’s fireworks, the most accomplished technical classicism of the evening came from the terrific pairing of Galina Mihaylova and Arman Grigoryan of Zurich Ballet in the wedding pas de deux from Attilio Labis’ version of "Coppélia." Everything was inch perfect. They were simply outstanding technically, and in their understanding of the music and each other.

Even so, rather more interesting was Jean-Christophe Maillot’s take on the bedroom pas de deux from "Romeo and Juliet" danced by Noelani Pantastico and Asier Uriagereka of Les Ballets de Monte Carlo. A million miles from the MacMillan, it is full of the uncertainty of adolescent love complete with lots of shy looks, embarrassed laughter and playful pushing each other away. Noelani Pantastico really did give us a 14-year old Juliet. She was delightfully natural, at times holding back and wondering what to do, but at others totally impetuous. It really made you want to see the whole ballet.

Rather more grown-up love came from Leanne Benjamin and Edward Watson, as outstanding as ever in the bedroom pas de deux from "Manon," and in Bertrand d’At’s "In the Mood for Love," a real conversation in dance between two people apparently on the way home after an evening out.

The evening also include selections from Itzik Galili’s "A Linha Curva" by Rambert Dance Company and the Spring pas de deux from David Bintley’s "Four Seasons," before finishing off with an NBT ensemble piece that climaxed in a shower of real sparkling fireworks from above.

With the free champagne flowing this was always going to be an evening the audience would enjoy. But ten out of ten to Nixon for also showing a few glimpses of works and companies we might not otherwise see.

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