Seventeen months after Andrew McNicol announced the launch of his company, with its debut scheduled for April 2020, his programme of four new works has finally reached the stage, first in London and then in Hull, his home town. His plan has been to recruit independent dancers (mostly former members of ballet companies) to collaborate with him on contemporary ballet creations while pursuing their own careers. Recently appointed at 29 as Artistic Associate of English National Ballet School, he has choreographed internationally for film and stage.
His most ambitious project for the Awakenings programme is Firebird Reimagined, a reworking of Fokine’s 1910 ballet to a score by Stravinsky. In a film compilation screened before the performance, McNicol explains that the encounter between the supernatural Firebird and the man she rescues takes place in a society dominated by technology – news coverage, smartphones and social media. He is saved by being reconnected to the natural world. Without this information, the dancing that follows would be inscrutable.
The man, Laurie McSherry-Gray, is threated by four robotic ‘friends’ in white outfits, their faces hidden by dark glasses. The compassionate Firebird, Kristen McGarrity, protects the man from them, teaching him a fluent way of moving in their pas de deux. Benevolent rather than fearsome, she lulls the cast to sleep, transforming them into freer beings in new white costumes. All rejoice to Stravinsky’s celebratory finale, which overwhelms McNicol’s efforts at transfiguration. Ideas that seemed intriguing on film resist realisation on a bare stage. Stravinsky’s imagination (in a suite of the ballet score) roves wider and more wildly than McNicol can encompass.
The opening work, In Ecstasy, also appears to be inspired by a Diaghilev-era ballet, L’Après-midi d’un faune. A solitary figure, McSherry-Gray, is discovered by two young women (McGarrity and Winnie Dias) who invade his domain. His presumption at attempting to dance with one of them is firmly resisted. They are joined by two bare-chested men in mottled tights, Shevelle Dynott and Joshua McSherry-Gray (Laurie’s twin brother). All four intertwine in double duets, ignoring the faun as though they are his fantasy. He is then included in group tableaux as the dancers surge around the space, rising, descending and reconnecting to a pulsating score by Nicholas Thayer and Setareh Narfisi. The effect is like watching a painter’s brushstrokes sweeping and dissolving across a canvas. By the end, the faun-fantasist is left alone again.
McNicol is a craftsman at enabling dancers to move dynamically in groups, the shapes they make individually linking into eye-catching combinations. In Of Silence, a group of five cling together, led by Winnie Dias, to choral music by Latvian composer Peteris Vasks. When they break into duets, no romance involved: the only same-sex duet is for the two brothers. A repeated motif is of consoling hands on shoulders. Though the melancholic atmosphere of the piece suggests a requiem, as does Vasks’s religious music, the members of the group are apparently trying to hold on to their beliefs in spite of the human conflicts and devastation going on around them. How is an audience meant to intuit that message?
McNicol’s choreography, in collaboration with his ballet-trained dancers, uses the long lines of neo-classical ballet without distortions or attention-grabbing lifts. It’s a pleasure to watch. His use of pointe work for the women is free-flowing in the three works mentioned above, with a marked change to sharp, percussive footwork in Bates Beats, a fun new work to jazzy music by Mason Bates.The main figure is Shevelle Dynott, sleek and speedy, a spirit of mischief let loose among three elegant women in blue. Brief Bates Beats is a less-is-more indication of McNicol’s versatility.
Setting up his own company, with dancers’ availability disrupted by the pandemic, is quite an achievement. McNicol had experimented on film with preparatory plans for the works on the programme before deciding on its final form. He has chosen to fill the pauses between the works by using extracts from those films, with contributions by the dancers about their pleasure in working with him. Their praise comes across as special pleading, which should be unnecessary. He is experienced in choreographing and collaborating with dancers, but he’s still finding his way as a producer of his own work. Wishing him and his company well, we hope to watch it develop and prosper.
A long-established dance writer, Jann Parry was dance critic for The Observer from 1983 to 2004 and wrote the award-winning biography of choreographer Kenneth MacMillan: 'Different Drummer', Faber and Faber, 2009. She has written for publications including The Spectator, The Listener, About the House (Royal Opera House magazine), Dance Now, Dance Magazine (USA), Stage Bill (USA) and Dancing Times. As a writer/producer she worked for the BBC World Service from 1970 to 1989, covering current affairs and the arts. As well as producing radio programmes she has contributed to television and radio documentaries about dance and dancers.