First performed in 2008, Derek Deane’s glossy, large-scale production, Strictly Gershwin, is a neatly crafted if rather old-fashioned affair that combines both the razzle-dazzle and sublime melancholy of George Gershwin’s songs with the skills of the English National Ballet at its best.
The eighteen routines cram in everything from tap to ballroom, swing to Latin American dance, with conductor Gareth Valentine’s musical arrangements placing particular emphasis on the production’s balletic and atmospheric requirements. The strongest moments combine classical ballet with musical brilliance. In the performance that accompanies ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ there are hints of Busby Berkeley in the glitz of the costumes yet all of the steps are predominantly classical. The beauty lies in the way in which the corps de ballet, and in particular the soloists Erina Takahashi and Zdenek Konvalina, bring warmth and charisma to their movements.
During ‘An American in Paris’ the performers capture the bustle of a Parisian street with artists, soldiers, schoolgirls, nuns, prams and bicycles gracing the stage. This then gives way to a pas de deux between Anais Chalendard and Esteban Berlanga, a dream-like encounter that is full of charge, fluidity and a sense of mutual dependence. ‘Shall We Dance’ is staged as a ballroom number, the pace of which is suddenly stepped up several gears half way through, and ‘Fascinatin’ Rhythm’ features the brilliant tap dancers Douglas Mills and Paul Robinson. Though their movements are big and showy their level of precision is considerable. ‘Lady be Good’ sees the entire ensemble tapping together to magnificently entertaining effect, while ‘Strike Up the Band’ combines formation marching with tap – and even a bit of roller-blading. At the other end of the spectrum, the melancholic ‘It Ain’t Necessarily So’ is danced as a slow and sensuous tango by Tamarin Scott and Esteban Berlanga, while the ENB dream partnership of Vadim Muntagirov and Daria Klimentová provide a heartfelt performance of ‘Summertime.’
Though the dancing is superb throughout, the vocal performances, which accompany several of the numbers, are far more variable. The four Maida Vale Singers are at their best when performing in harmony, but too many of their solos feel over-amplified, poorly phrased or too brash to allow for sufficient emotional expression; in this way the power of some of the songs is lost and the interruption caused by these musical sequences only serves to slacken the overall pace of the production.
The orchestral interludes are far more successfully handled. The English National Ballet orchestra, augmented with jazz musicians, is on strong form, while Valentine gives quite the performance himself, bouncing around and even indulging in his own brand of moon walking. Overall Deane’s production seems most comfortable with the big group numbers, the ones that favour spectacle over subtlety, the slick over the intimate, and it’s these sequences that work best.