Dance: English National Ballet, the Royal Albert Hall and WebPlay present Swanning Around

On Monday 14 June over a hundred young people from schools all over the UK and China flocked to the stage at the Royal Albert Hall to dance Swanning Around. The piece is a re-imaging of Swan Lake inspired by Derek Deane’s production for English National Ballet, currently showing at the same venue. For six weeks, the five British and five Chinese schools involved in the project have been rehearsing in their separate venues with professional dance artists from ENB. I went along to meet the young performers as they met to rehearse together for the first time.

For Artistic Director, Laura Harvey, Monday’s performance is the culmination of 18 months planning and preparation. ENB senior principal Jenna Lee choreographed the opening and finale sequences danced ensemble by all the students, and much of the choreography existed only on paper and in separate rehearsal studios until today. “This weekend is the first time it’s come together, and it’s a real test to see if everything we’ve done on paper has worked,” smiles Laura. ‘So far so good!”

The five UK schools – Burnt Mill School in Essex, Holland Park School and Latymer Upper School in London, Salford City College in Manchester and St John Bosco Arts College in Liverpool – each worked with a dance artist from ENB to create their own group piece based on one of the characters from Swan Lake. “We’ve had music composed by a lady called Sally Greaves,’ explains Laura. ‘She’s really drawn out the central characters of Swan Lake, so it’s not so much just the narrative, it’s really delving into who those characters are.”

ENB principal dancer Yat-Sen Chang choreographed the Rothbart sequence on 24 dancers from Holland Park School. ‘Getting the character for each part of the dance was a challenge,’ he says. ‘Even though it was Rothbart, I kind of wanted to make it a little bit more grounded in terms of movement and shapes.” The dance artists had just six weeks to create the pieces with their young dancers, who come from a variety of school yeargroups and training backgrounds. ‘It hasn’t been very much time to put it all together,’ says Yat-Sen, ‘but working with the school was really enjoyable – one of the great moments of my week!’

The cast includes Y7 dancers from St John Bosco and Latymer Upper School, GCSE dancers from Holland Park School, and A-level students from St John Bosco and Salford City’s Pendleton Sixth Form Centre. The performers are both male and female; some are new to dance, some returning after a break, and some have been dancing for many years.

Although there is an age gap of up to seven years between some groups of performers, what’s remarkable about this rehearsal is the way the whole group pulls together as one. As Jenna walks among the dancers, setting space and adjusting fine details, there is little sense that these young dancers come from different yeargroups and different areas of the country. All are focused on the same object – to bring Jenna’s ‘dots on paper’ to life.

In addition to the Albert Hall performance, Swanning Around will be performed at the Shanghai World Expo in September this year, and ten of the young performers from Hong Kong and China are also guesting at the London performance this week. ‘We had an open audition in Hong Kong, so a lot of people went to the audition,’ explains 18-year old Olivia Kong Hiu Ting, ‘and they selected 26 of us to be in the project. I found out I’d got in in my chemistry lesson and I was so excited – I thought,’Oh my god, it’s such a great opportunity to be in such a big project!”

In September, ten of the UK students will perform in China alongside students from the five Chinese schools involved, from Hong Kong, Beijing, Shanghai and Jiangsu. Working across ten centres –  some of them 5,000 miles apart – has been made possible by site visits from the ENB team, and by technology partner WebPlay who have provided an online interface for students to communicate with one another, share rehearsal footage, keep diaries and meet virtually. ‘They’ve been able to see each other in rehearsal using WebPlay,’ says ENB’s Director of Learning Fleur Derbyshire-Fox, ‘but today it’s really started to make sense with them performing together in the same space.’

Monday’s performance brings to the stage regal soldiers, a whiteness of Odettes fluttering across the stage, Yat-Sen Chang’s grounded, percussive Rothbarts, super-cute cygnets, disco-dancing party guests and seductive, Balanchine-inspired Odiles danced by Salford City. As the whole cast gather into a wedge for the grand unison finale, the sense of unity and achievement is potent enough to reach up to the Grand Tier.   ‘Being in a production isn’t like what you do in class,’ reflects Olivia. ‘Everyone is working for the same goal.’

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News: Will recycling incentives help to keep local boroughs green?

A survey by the Green Party published this month had good news for two of Highgate’s neighbouring boroughs – Islington was named the greenest London borough, with Haringey picking up a special mention for reducing its energy use most over the last year.

The survey took into account carbon emissions, energy usage, recycling and household waste disposal. The news will be particularly good for Haringey, which pledged to tackle climate change and protect the environment in its 2008 “greenest borough” strategy.

In more environment news this week, the new coalition government proposed to scrap plans for a “bin tax” on homes, replacing this charge with rewards for recycling. A pilot of the reward system was recently hailed as a success in Windsor, and local councils are now being encouraged to launch similar incentive schemes.

Some critics fear, however, that financial rewards might incentivise the wrong behaviour, leading to people recycling more purchased packaging in order to reap rewards, rather than reducing consumption in the first instance.

Camden, Haringey and Islington all run roadside recycling schemes and each borough has its own reuse and recycle centres for larger items. It’s clear that all three local councils want to encourage residents to recycle as much as possible in order to retain their green credentials and promote a sustainable future.

But is a reward scheme the best way to do this? Is ease of recycling a better incentive than reward-card points? Would you prefer to penalise bad habits with a “bin tax”, or perhaps retain such a tax alongside the reward scheme? Or should greener living be its own reward? Let us know what you think below!

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Dance: Mark Bruce Company, Love and War, The Place 3 June

Opening The Place’s “Square Dances” season of works performed up-close and in-the-round, Mark Bruce’s Love and War sets figures from Greek mythology in a post-modern carnival setting with varying degrees of success. Aphrodite struts onto the stage dressed like a Marvel superheroine at a pep rally; she twirls her pom-poms like juggler’s poi and pops her gum loudly. Ares, danced by the always charismatic Darren Ellis, wraps a large rope around the goddess of sensuality and leaves her to unwind herself in slow motion. It’s not entirely clear why.

“It’s not entirely clear why” is the unfortunate leitmotif of the whole production. Greig Cooke’s Zeus, dressed as a scary clown, terrifies Elizabeth Mischler’s prom-queen Hera without provocation. Joanne Fong, as Cassandra, dances a skilful but unlikely solo to Tom Waits’ “You can Never Hold Back Spring”, an optimistic sentiment not usually associated with the cursed prophetess.
Ino Riga is fantastically reptilian as Hades – all frog-like crouches, snaking torso and scuttling fingers – but why Hades is hanging out with Zeus and his immediate family is never made clear. The choreography’s abstract processions from neoclassical attitudes to Commedia-esque mime and back again serve neither the dancers nor the readability of the piece well. Despite the best efforts of the seven talented performers, symbolism skits and flutters across the stage but never sticks.
Bruce is clearly very fond of his American alt-rock. The soundtrack is dominated by no fewer than 17 tracks from the likes of Sparklehorse, Queens of the Stone Age and The White Stripes. There’s an inescapable parallel to be drawn here between Bruce’s use of this music and Wayne McGregor’s, currently in revival over at Covent Garden – McGregor uses his indie score lightly and playfully, counterpointing as much as complementing the music. Bruce’s work is frequently in danger of being engulfed by its own soundtrack, the rock riffs distracting attention from the movement rather than enhancing it. It’s also rather wearing – like being forced to listen to somebody’s adored but dreary mid-noughties mixtape.
A highly visual production, Love and War has, to its credit, got much right about the design. Ares, god of bloodlust, tends to get the most arresting moments – driving a chariot made up of long ropes binding the other characters, or indulging in a murderous gun-toting spree that sprays the stage with rose petals. The solos, duets and ensemble pieces that make up the 70 minutes of stage time are atmospherically presented. Poles of light illuminate the cast at key moments, and Cassandra at one point finds herself strikingly surrounded by fluorescent tubes.
Visual drama can’t save this production from adding up to less than the sum of its parts, however. The high concept simply doesn’t gel with the unexceptional movement material, and the aurally-conspicuous rock soundtrack swamps much of the dance work. For Bruce’s company, the conceit of bringing Olympians into the everyday world has produced something more mundane than divine.
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