Junor Souza and Alison McWhinney were declared joint winners at the English National Ballet’s Emerging Dancer 2014, the in-company competition that seeks to nurture the junior ranks. And the support displayed by fellow colleagues in the audience was heart-warming.
Victory looked serendipitously theirs from the off – they were the final couple to dance, with the sparkliest of costumes and a big musical build-up. And they danced like principals.
The show-stopping throw and fish drive at the beginning of their Esmeralda pas de deux was a sign of things to come, and both were precise and crisp. Souza’s fiendish variation attracted the biggest applause of the night and he managed excellent height in a relentless series of jumps. This is a dancer who has mastered the art of making it look easy.
McWhinney was not flawless, having wobbled in her balances and missed some tambourine kicks, but they did not detract from her beautiful lines and simple grace. The tambourine variation, with her sharp fouettés, was gorgeous.
Each dancer also performed a solo, and Souza was the only one to pick his own work. Last Minute was full of twitching and confusion, and Souza played to his strengths with some dazzling turns – well, that is the advantage when you create it yourself.
McWhinney, meanwhile, opted for a solo from David Dawson’s A Million Kisses to My Skin, responding to the frenetic music of Bach with ferocious urgency. The only gripe is the abrupt editing of the score.
The Emerging Dancer accolade is somewhat arbitrary, and it’s not clear how dancers were chosen. Either way, Souza is already popular with audiences (and won the People’s Choice Award that evening).
Kou partnered with Vitor Menezes in the La Sylphide pas de deux, and hats off to both for striking the difficult balance between telling a story and looking farcical with the copious amount of mime involved. Kou captured the spirit of August Bournonville with some weightless sissonnes and tireless relevés. Menezes was also at home with the Danish style: airy jumps, intricate footwork and super light. While both were a joy to watch separately, they were less successful together, and the final turns looked awkward.
It was good to see the duo go 180 degrees in their solos. Menezes capitalised on his Latino heritage with Mambo Suite – it didn’t challenge his technique much, and he certainly looked as though he knew how to do those hip sways before he knew how to plié, but it was cheeky, flirty and silly.
Usually of the soubrette mould, Kou went for Nocturnes as a tragic heroine who stumbled from place to place, hands over mouth and painfully reaching out to nothingness. But, like her pas de deux, she failed to make a distinctive mark.
The remaining couple were also the newest – Madison Keesler and Joan Sebastian Zamora both joined ENB in 2013, and looked impossibly young on the Lyceum stage in full classical costume for Flower Festival.
Zamora is not yet an assured partner – their final coda in particular looked rushed. While he could clearly tackle the tough solo variation, the artistry isn’t quite there yet. Also with a steely technique, Keesler was positively radiating. Both are worth watching out for. Zamora opted for melodrama in his solo: Roland Petit’s L’Arlésienne. Petit is not to everyone’s taste, but what is clear is that this choice does not play to Zamora’s strengths.
Keelser, like Kou, went for the “woman scorned” approach with a solo from Liam Scarlett’s Variations on a Theme. Almost Graham-esque in a floating red dress, Keesler gave a delicate performance, but the choreography felt a little vacuous. But it was mesmerising to watch her posture visually break with the music.
The evening ended with performances from last year’s winners. Nancy Osbaldeston, looking fantastic in all black, choreographed an unfortunately edited rock medley. Performing in your own solo dance risks looking indulgent and, in this case, it did. Laurretta Summerscales and James Forbat followed with Manon – it’s hard to get emotions across in an excerpt devoid of context, and Kenneth MacMillan was all about emotions. The partnering was adequate, though Summerscales shone.