For ballet lovers in London, the Royal Ballet School’s Annual Performance is a clear highlight of the summer season. It is breathtaking to see the young dancers, eyes brimming with excitement, stepping onto the Royal Opera House’s main stage to showcase their talents. For the graduating class, this is the final ‘hoorah’ before they join companies around the world and start their professional careers. For the younger ones, it’s an opportunity to get a taster of what lies ahead, to keep track of their own development, and for us the audience, a chance to discover future stars.
This year’s programme featured some particularly challenging pieces: Fokine’s Les Sylphides (which we last saw danced by the Royal Ballet in 2009) was the opener, and the second half featured Bournonville’s classroom ballet Konservatoriet (a very meta choice!). For the big finish, we had MacMillan’s Concerto, following on from the school’s 2016 pitch-perfect performance of Ashton’s Les Patineurs. All of these ballets are linked to specific periods in the art form’s history, and all are distinctive in terms of style, so not an easy task for youngsters who are yet to regularly rehearse and perform a variety of pieces. All were set to professional standards, which makes this student showcase even more impressive.
Both Les Sylphides and Concerto featured the lovely Sae Maeda, already one of my favorite new dancers. She is graduating this year and joining the Royal Ballet. It is easy to see why: expressive eyes, wonderful use of her upper body and superb musicality (essentially, a Giselle in the making), she was a joy to watch as the waltz girl in Les Sylphides, whereas in Concerto (cast as first couple together with Harrison Lee – more on him below…), she displayed quicksilver footwork and a buoyant jump. Les Sylphides also featured Haoliang Feng as the Poet and Nadia Mullova-Barley as the prelude dancer. They danced a beautiful pas de deux despite their considerable difference in height. Mullova-Barley is a tall, beautifully proportioned dancer and she was better cast, and looked very comfortable, as the solo woman in Concerto.
Years 10 and 11 boys made an appearance in Erik Bruhn’s Here We Come. An ensemble piece for 12, sailors entered and left the stage in military fashion. This was no Fancy Free, but Daichi Ikarashi’s eye-popping solo won huge applause, amidst other captivating moments. Next was Jonathan Watkins’s Onwards, another enjoyable ensemble piece showcasing first year Upper School students (16-17 year olds), interspacing pas de deux with ever-changing groupings.
The first half closed with a piece by Ohad Naharin, Echad Mi Yodea. It features 19 dancers in chairs around the stage, wearing identical black suits. The choreography is repetitive with a purpose, and the overall effect is thrilling, with the strong rhythms and changes posing a contemporary challenge to the dancers. It was definitely 180 degrees away from the preceding classic fare, Ashton’s 1971 Swan Lake Pas de Quatre, danced by Yu Kurihara, Amelia Townsend, Eli Gruska and Harrison Lee. This was my first look at Lee (E. had told me she had been very impressed with him as Blue Boy in Les Patineurs last year), and it was shocking to learn he still has one more year before graduating, as he looked as polished and assured as a professional dancer.
Curtains went up again on Bournonville’s Konservatoriet. A wonderfully appropriate choice for a ballet school showcase, it featured dancers from all ages, and we were introduced to Brayden Gallucci, a tall dancer who was superb as the “Ballet Master”, and to Emily Hoff and Ginevra Zambon, who navigated through the petite batterie and sustained développés with grace and poise.
Hans Van Manen’s Solo followed, featuring graduating students Jerome Barnes, Joshua Junker and Augustus Payne. We had seen this humorous piece previously danced by companies like Dutch National Ballet and San Francisco Ballet, and we can confidently say that these dancers nailed it. If these boys reflect the quality of the male graduating class, then this is a strong year indeed!
Quick change of gear for a pas de deux by Didy Veldman, See Blue Through, featuring second year students Katharina Nikelski and Harris Bell. Even though it was well-performed and the dancers were clearly committed, I thought it looked gimmicky, with choreography that relied too much on the use of t-shirt/tunic as props. Perhaps this is a piece that needs to be seen in full for context?
The final piece was MacMillan’s Concerto (to Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No 2). This is a ballet we are very fond of, and it’s a bold choice for a student showcase, given that it presents huge technical challenges and that the second movement calls for such poignancy and eloquence, usually associated with the more mature dancers. I was happy to see it well performed here, despite a couple of hiccups that were swiftly and well concealed, which is surely an important part of the process of familiarising with the big stages.
Nicholas Landon and Yu Hang did a fine job as the central couple, but here the MVP was again young Harrison Lee. Fresh from a technically brilliant performance in the Swan Lake Pas de Quatre, he completely went for broke in the first movement: clean, sharp turns, astonishing jumps, wonderful feet. In a nutshell, he’s the full-package. I could not help but notice him again at centre stage during the always-moving Grand Défilé that closes the performance. With such an array of talent, clearly a new generation of ballet stars is waiting on the wings.