Strictly Gershwin, Derek Deane’s staging for English National Ballet, is returned to Kensington Gore. It is brash, loud, vivacious, hummable, skilled in its assumptions about public taste and in its placing in the round for the Royal Albert Hall, and elaborated in this revised production. And it is, as George Balanchine said about certain of his ballets, “an applause machine”.
Here is a dance revue using irresistibly popular music, mixing ballet and rollerblading, heavy-footed tap and lightest-footed ballroom, and a bicycle. Here are Gershwin’s songs, orchestrated within an inch of their lives; here also are the overwrought An American in Paris, and Rhapsody in Blue, that voice of the 1920s. Here, indeed, is an unashamed production aimed at an audience who might not consider ballet without swans as likely entertainment. (And here, incidentally, is the sole offering for ENB’s six-week autumn tour of the regions, and a subsequent London Coliseum programme: a response to financial stringencies, I hazard.)
For this show is jolly, welcoming, coasting along on tunes that everyone knows, and it is done with a fine sense of theatre, which has ever been Deane’s forte. In this revival, it is even more slick and brassy than at its first outing in 2008. The company’s dancing is polished, resourceful. All the troupe’s principals are brightly on hand, and former guests – Tamara Rojo, Guillaume Côté, Friedemann Vogel – are splendidly returned.
I was, on this occasion, less than a fan of the singer, Maria Friedman, who overburdens the taut line of Gershwin songs with dragging tempi, and I have little sympathy for two determined male tap-dancers. I have fallen completely for the ultra-stylish Carmen and her partner Bryan Watson, world champion Latin American dancers. The orchestra is tireless. The orchestrations are beefy and tend to smother Gershwin with their attentions. Jonathan Scott is all elegance as the pianist for Rhapsody. Projections above the stage relate, more or less, to what we see.
The public was ecstatic. Carping nit-picker that I may supposedly be, I salute the show’s dashing presentation and its verve as an applause machine. Bravo!