Leaps and bounds: what I learned in 13 years as the Observer's dance critic

After filing his final dance review last month, Luke Jennings reflects on the transcendent highs and excruciating lows, and his hopes for the future of the art form

Things have changed since 2005, when I became the Observer’s dance critic. I’d been a dancer myself, back in the day, and this was an irresistible invitation to re-enter a world that part of me still missed.

Thirteen years ago it was still possible to say that we needed classical arts such as ballet to connect us to the ineffable, to higher things. Swan Lake, people said, was about the human search for the transcendent. Sleeping Beauty was about the disruption and reimposition of divine order. Today, very few people talk like that. We don’t want art that is arctically remote, we want art that connects us to each other. Whose intention is horizontal, not vertical.

The works that have most powerfully affected me divide into two kinds. There are those in which idea and execution are thrilling and indivisible (where, in Pina Bausch’s Café Müller, do you draw the line between your icy incredulity at what she is making you feel and understand about growing up in traumatised, postwar Germany, and your astonishment at the almost threadbare simplicity of the means by which she achieves this?), and there are those in which extraordinary individual performances illuminate familiar and even hokey material. I recall Alina Cojocaru as the Sylph in La Sylphide, flitting across the Covent Garden stage with her tiny gauze wings on her back. This was no benign Tinkerbell. Cojocaru looked lethal, utterly and blankly inhuman, and as James (Steven McRae) longingly reached for her, she gave a tiny, anticipatory frisson. She was going to torture him, and she was going to make it last.

These were mesmerising, if very different, performances, and part of their pleasurability was the knowledge that they were shared events. That all around me, people were feeling the same thing. The same recognition, the same cold hand on the neck, the same sense that yes, this echoes something that, at some subconscious level, I have always known to be true. What’s new is audience members’ investment in the meta-life of the event. It has become a three-part process. There’s the niche media buzz, the immediacy of the performance, and the reactive afterlife. We zoom in, hold focus, and zoom out, hurtling from the digital to the analogue and back again.

Watch a trailer for Crystal Pite and Jonathon Young’s ‘life-changing’ Betroffenheit, 2015.

When the work is good, this journey can be profound and enlightening. And once in a while, it can be life-changing. I’m talking about pieces such as Kidd Pivot’s Betroffenheit, in which choreographer Crystal Pite and playwright Jonathon Young responded to a hellishly traumatic real-life event – the death in a house fire of Young’s daughter, nephew and niece – with a dance work of excoriating insight. Or William Forsythe’s I Don’t Believe in Outer Space, in which Forsythe tried to imagine the “absolute absence” that will replace him when he dies. These were dark-shaded works, which demanded fierce and absolute concentration but which left me riding a wave of feeling so intense that I could hardly breathe. Looking around me as we left the auditorium (Sadler’s Wells, on both occasions) I could see that others felt the same. No one said much, but we exchanged a certain kind of conspiratorial glance.

Part of the excitement of being a critic was that I never knew when a work was going to undo me in this fashion: to leave me so intoxicated that, when writing about it hours or days later, it was still racing through my bloodstream. Sometimes I’d hold on to the whole piece; sometimes, especially with ballet, just to the moment that seemed to hold the essence of it all. Tamara Rojo as Giselle, making her entrance at the beginning of the ballet and standing there, small and square-shouldered, heart-rending in her vulnerability. In Rojo’s bearing at that moment, in the interplay of her neck and her back, you could see the entire tragedy prefigured. Marianela Nuñez as Juliet, racing towards her Romeo (Thiago Soares) in the balcony scene, whipping off a skittish multiple pirouette, and then, as her body suddenly flooded with desire, changing register completely, so that her dancing assumed a charged, visceral lyricism.

Tamara Rojo and Carlos Acosta in Giselle at the Royal Opera House, 2006.
Carlos Acosta and Tamara Rojo in Giselle at the Royal Opera House, 2006. Photograph: Bill Cooper

If ballet was illuminated by individual performances, contemporary dance felt more collaborative. It was the great productions I remember, rather than the performances embedded in them (although many of these were also great). Works such as New Movement Collective’s Casting Traces, which turned Paul Auster’s metafictional detective series into thrillingly imaginative physical theatre; Michael Keegan-Dolan’s wild, nightmarish Swan Lake/Loch na hEala, which shifted the 19th-century supernatural tale to the modern-day Irish Midlands; and Kenrick Sandy and Michael Asante’s mesmerising and melancholy hip-hop odyssey Blak Whyte Gray. All of these choices are of course subjective, critics being as idiosyncratic as anyone else. My epiphany might be your bullshit, and vice versa. But what the best contemporary dance works had in common is that they addressed and proposed new perspectives on the times in which we live, and the people that we are now. As choreographers like Matthew Bourne and Kate Prince have proved, dance theatre doesn’t have to be doomy to address the human condition. Productions such as Bourne’s Edward Scissorhands and Play Without Words, or Prince’s Into the Hoods, were brilliantly entertaining even as they told us hard truths.

Watch a video of NMC’s Casting Traces.

A fair amount of new work looked like dross. To me, anyway. Nederlands Dans Theater, for all the technical brilliance of its dancers, appears lost in a wasteland of pretension. I won’t miss Jérôme Bel’s sanctimonious and shallow “non-dance” events; his 3Abschied, a collaboration with choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, who should have known better, was an excruciating indulgence (basically, she sang Mahler’s Der Abschied, or tried to), and as a dud evening out was right up there with Alexander Ekman’s fatuous A Swan Lake (think classically trained dancers splashing around in two inches of water, for hours). And then there’s the whole turgid undertow of the Belgian nouvelle vague, with which I will not detain you.

Did I get things wrong? Almost certainly, and many will point to the above paragraph as proof of this. But over the years, I’ve come to recognise the cloying taste when, as an audience member, I’m asked to swallow pseudo-academic theory along with choreography. This still happens on the British dance stage, but less often than it used to. Britain is fortunate in the diversity and talent of its contemporary dance-makers, and I have watched the flowering of lustrous careers such as those of Bourne, Richard Alston, Akram Khan and Wayne McGregor. Frustratingly, it remains the case that female choreographers are under-represented when it comes to large-scale UK dance commissions.

Pop-Up Duets (Fragments of Love) by the late Janis Claxton at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, 2018.
Pop-Up Duets (Fragments of Love) by the late Janis Claxton at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, 2018. Photograph: Roy Campbell-Moore

Last year, the Edinburgh-based choreographer Janis Claxton died of cancer. She was one of the first dance-makers I ever reviewed, I had long admired her work, and I knew that her professional life had been one of thankless and largely unrewarded struggle. “It’s a nightmare for those of us who watch as men get given chances they are simply not ready for, while we graft away at our craft and take smaller-scale opportunities,” she told me. “Women quit because they don’t get the support that their male colleagues get.” In 2018, Claxton’s company was invited to the prestigious Jacob’s Pillow dance festival in Massachusetts. It was the recognition that she had sought for so long, but by then she was too ill to go. Her dancers went, and did her proud.

The dance world needs combative spirits like Claxton, and it needs to stop relegating them to obscurity. Ballet, in particular, needs women in creative power roles; their absence is the art form’s most significant deficiency. As former Royal Ballet dancer Susie Crow put it to me: “Have decades of work from a male perspective internalised particular choreographic conventions, and conditioned tastes to a certain type of physicality?” And where are the women of colour in British ballet? We are fortunate to have inspiring role models such as Céline Gittens, Precious Adams and Cira Robinson dancing in our companies, but all were trained abroad. If British ballet is to be for everyone, then everyone must be represented.

It’s been an amazing 13 years. People ask me what has been the best thing that I’ve seen, and of course there is no “best”. But if you were to ask me which experience I’d most like to repeat, I think I know. It was a weekday matinee in 2007, and English National Ballet were dancing their traditional version of Giselle, with Elena Glurdjidze in the title role. Then 32, Glurdjidze had studied at the Vaganova Academy in St Petersburg, and had learned Giselle from her teacher, the great Lyubov Kunakova. Her performance reminded me of why I first fell in love with ballet. Nothing she did was technically extraordinary, nothing was showy, her legs hardly ever rose above the horizontal. But such was her transparency, so profound was her identification with the role, that you couldn’t really see the dancing. All was character, all was emotion, all was story. Glurdjidze stopped time, and that is what great dancing can do. Writing about such transformative experiences has been, to say the least, a challenge. But also, as my successor will discover, a joy.

Luke’s five favourite debuts

Teneisha Bonner, right, with Roger Davies in Into the Hoods at the Novello, 2008.
Teneisha Bonner, right, with Roger Davies in Into the Hoods at the Novello, 2008. Photograph: Nils Jorgensen/Rex/Shutterstock

Teneisha Bonner in Into the Hoods, Novello theatre, April 2008
This was the first hip-hop show to open in the West End and Bonner was its breakout star. A dancer of power, beauty and goofball wit, she would win a National Dance award for her performances during the show’s record-breaking run.

Sergei Polunin in La Bayadère, Royal Opera House, February 2009
Polunin was 19, this was his first principal role, and from the moment he entered, the stage was his. Polunin’s career would go into a sad decline, but the blaze of that night will stay with me forever.

Crystal Pite’s Lost Action at Sadler’s Wells, September 2009
In her London debut as a choreographer, Pite and her company presented a profound and precisely crafted meditation on war, loss and memory. Pite’s work was a revelation; for me, there’s no finer dance-maker working today.

Edward Watson in Metamorphosis at the Linbury Studio, Royal Opera House, 2011.
Edward Watson in Metamorphosis at the Linbury Studio, Royal Opera House, 2011. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Edward Watson in Metamorphosis, Linbury Studio, September 2011
As the protagonist of Kafka’s novella about a man who turns into a giant insect (skilfully translated into physical theatre by Arthur Pita), Watson gave a performance of magnificent strangeness and poignancy, redrawing his limits as a dancer in the process.

Francesca Hayward in Rhapsody, Royal Opera House, January 2016
To see Hayward’s cascading brilliance in this late work by Frederick Ashton was to be reminded that great dancing is a love affair, a passionate dissolving of movement into music, at once inexplicable and radiantly simple.

Francesca Hayward in Rhapsody at the Royal Opera House, 2016.
Francesca Hayward in Rhapsody at the Royal Opera House, 2016. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian


Luke Jennings

The GuardianTramp

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