When one door closes, another opens. During the pandemic, this maxim had a consequence for concert dance: when the theater doors close, digital portals multiply. With Britain locked again, Sadler’s Wells Theater in London is closed to the public, but its dance program is now available for free on its website, at least in the form of a tasting menu, three hour shows called “Dancing Nation”.
For the London audience, it’s partly a substitute for what can be got. But for the rest of the world this was something we didn’t have before, certainly not in such a handy package: an opportunity to try British dance. And the selection that has been filmed in the theater most recently is clearly conceived as a sampler: large national institutions alongside upstarts, a range of styles, a geographical spread.
“You don’t think of Britain as a dancing nation, but it is,” says Alistair Spalding, the artistic director of Sadler’s Wells, in the first episode. This statement is significant. These are shows that profess to dance (and are proud of the local scene) but assume that audiences don’t – that they need to be sold.
Dancing Nation is a collaboration with BBC Arts and the programs have the feel of a BBC travel show. Seasoned correspondent Brenda Emmanus moderates and introduces each piece with booster adjectives (“amazing”, “groundbreaking”), pamphlet descriptions (“a powerful piece about a couple dealing with depression”) and instructions on how to respond (“seen once “Never Forget”). After each dance, she keeps holding her hand and repeats some of these elements just in case.
Ahead of some recordings, Emmanus interviews choreographers and artistic directors and checks how they survived, who got live shows between locks and how they switched to digital. Nothing really rises above polite chat, but that way the shows deliver a bit of contextual padding, little news.
All in all, it’s a comforting product that greets large audiences with conventions of mild professionalism. This is certainly useful – would PBS do the same for American dance! – but I couldn’t help but wish for something more artistic, if not more challenging, something more trustworthy for the dance to justify myself.
Unsurprisingly, the dances themselves are a mixed bag. Almost all samplers are, and this one has a fast-forward option. What distinguishes here is the context of the pandemic: the common themes of loss, touch and limitation and how every work in this context strives for relevance.
The best program is the second, and not just because it includes the star pairing of Akram Khan and Natalia Osipova for the first time. His “Mud of Mourning: Touch” begins with the recited text: “Who will remember the story of touch?” And touch it. The fusion of his kathak contemporary style with her ballet results in a four-armed creature, part Shiva, part swan. This is noticeable, although more moving when she is dancing in a simple ballroom position and when she walks and his arms go empty.
The second program also includes part of “Hope Hunt and the Rise of Lazarus” by the erupting Belfast choreographer Oona Doherty. A woman rolls out of the car and poses like a working class man. The excerpt is cut off, but serves to introduce an important, original voice and to confirm its power, as the piece retains its power without the choreographer in the business card roll it created.
The second program is also representative of the presentation of strong hip-hop and weak ballet. “Lazuli Sky”, a new work by Will Tuckett for the Birmingham Royal Ballet, is fluid, conventionally pretty and perfectly normal. However, part of “Blak Whyte Gray,” a work by hip-hop troupe Boy Blue from 2017, is still urgent, a trio of precise robots, prisoners that evoke empathy like puppets.
And one piece “BLKDOG”, a work by Far From the Norm from 2018, is enough to establish his choreographer Botis Seva as a significant new talent. Hooded figures sit, tremble, run, fall. When they crouch down quickly, their knees butt and feet scurrying like a ballerina in Bourrées, this is the most piercing moment of the dance action in the entire festival.
For the strongest selection in the festival, “BLKDOG” competes with “Shades of Blue” by Matsena Productions, with which the third episode begins. Contemporary hip-hop also has its conventions, like the prison cells in this work of light and zombie movement. The image of a cop standing on a black man’s back is all too familiar. But the chaotic repetitions of protest and imprisonment capture one emotion of 2020 better than anything else in Dancing Nation. At the end a black man speaks in front of an empty auditorium. “Are you deaf?” he asks. The silence, he says, is terrifying.
Nothing else in the third program cuts through like this. Not Northern Ballet’s “States of Mind” with its hokey voice-over about pandemic loneliness and the healing power of love. Not Shobana Jeyasingh’s “Contagion”, a reminder of the Spanish flu of 1918 from 2018. And certainly not Rambert’s new “Rouge”, in which Marion Motin’s music video stagnates without music video editing.
The first episode is the weakest and the anomaly in the sense that the ballet is solid (Matthew Bourne’s “Spitfire,” a fun 1988 show of male vanity and lingerie ads) and that hip-hop is wispy (a trip through the Sadler’s) well construction, courtesy of Breakin ‘Convention).
Despite the flaws and limitations of Dancing Nation, a dance lover across an ocean from London can be grateful for it. It is too early to say whether such presentations will continue after the pandemic. When asked what is most needed, Jonzi D from Breakin ‘Convention responds with the hope that the audience will return to the theater and “experience real dance in the flesh”. Alistair Spalding’s answer? “Ticket sales.”