Evenings of creations commissioned by a star dancer rather than a company are becoming increasingly conspicuous on the world stage. Sylvie Guillem and Diana Vishneva were trailblazers, and more dancers are seizing control in their wake – among them two stars from China and Taiwan, Yuan Yuan Tan and Fang-Yi Sheu, who headlined a short programme at Sadler’s Wells over the weekend.
Tan is San Francisco Ballet’s Chinese prima, a former wunderkind who has honed her artistry over nearly two decades with the innovative American company, while Sheu is a former principal with the Martha Graham Dance Company. Despite their contrasting backgrounds in ballet and modern dance, they share a serene poise and preternatural fluidity, and this lightweight evening, which is billed as a British-Chinese collaboration and had its premiere in Beijing last year, relies heavily on them to make an impact.
Tan opened the programme in a new pas de deux by Edwaard Liang, Finding Light, with fellow San Francisco principal Damian Smith. Set to Vivaldi, it is a conventionally lyrical piece that rarely digs beneath the surface, despite the undulating beauty of Tan’s lines. The duo returned after a short break in Wheeldon’s After the Rain, created for New York City Ballet’s Wendy Whelan in 2005. It is now so ubiquitous in galas that its charms can seem hackneyed, but Tan and Smith let the spare choreography resonate with understated emotion.
Sheu, meanwhile, took to the stage in the strongest creation on offer, Russell Maliphant’s PresentPast. Its slow-burning first scene, set to Enrico Caruso’s recording of “Una Furtiva Lagrima”, gives us Sheu as a modern Dying Swan, filling out the choreography with unhurried poetry, arms rippling in the air without a trace of sentimentality. When Donizetti gives way to original music by Andy Cowton, by contrast, she is suddenly a warrior, a whirlwind of light captured by Sadler’s Wells’ resident lighting wizard, Michael Hulls.
The two dancers returned to share the stage after an interval. Wheeldon’s 2011 Five Movements, Three Repeats pits a classical and a modern couple against each other but generates little tension, despite the push-and-pull created by Sheu and Clifton Smith in their duo. It was left to Maliphant to delve into Tan and Sheu’s striking similarity with a revival of his Two x Two. Dancing side by side in Hulls’ columns of light, they were gloriously sculptural, both soft and fierce as they met at this crossroads between their respective genres.