The Theatre at Chipping Norton in the heart of the leafy Cotswold countryside is a picturesque small venue, which provided the dancers of Ballet Central, the graduate performing company of Central School of Ballet, with a warmly welcoming family audience and an almost full house for their annual visit. The lopsided stage is narrow but deep, giving viewers in the side galleries problematic sightlines, but this is made up for by intimacy and potential connection between viewers and doers. The company earned my profound respect for their ability to fit energetic ensemble dancing into this space without any problems or collisions.

This year’s programme promised storytelling with iconic ballet titles such as Black Swan, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty. These were not simply cut down versions of full-scale classics, but re-workings made for touring and playing to the strengths of this company of talented youngsters in an unashamedly narrative conception of ballet. All set against the neutrality of black drapes, enlivened and given a sense of place by the use of props, and designer Dante Baylor’s colourful often asymmetric costumes which brought both variety and a sense of overall stylistic unity to the evening.

Jenna Lee’s Black Swan focused on the character of Odile, with suggestions of a dark psychological underside inspired by Darren Aronowsky’s controversial film. Drawing on her own experience of dancing in different productions of Swan Lake, Lee frames her evocation of the Act 3 ballroom scene with glimpses of bustling backstage life.   Her central character studies herself in the dressing room mirror, at first touching up her appearance with satisfaction, but once the show is done crumbling in dread as she takes her hair down, her erstwhile cheerful companions stonily escorting her back to obscurity while another ballerina takes her place. Ayca Anil convinced with her elegant sinuous line and imperious confidence, which suitably overpowered her bedazzled prince, Saul Kilcullen-Jarvis. An ensemble for friends and guests provided opportunities to show crisp classical dancing in shifting groups with hints of reference to familiar vocabulary. Striking costumes in geometric black and white were punctuated by the glittering red sequinned fascinators like beaks for Odile and her quartet of predatory accompanying swan maidens.

Two more reflective pieces followed this compact combination of psychodrama and classical showpiece. Extracts of works by Wayne McGregor and Kenneth MacMillan signalled the trust placed in this company by British ballet’s establishment. A male female duet in trademark neutral pants and singlets from McGregor’s FAR, made for his own company in 2010, was set to limpid keyboard and ethereal solo voice, a sampling of Vivaldi from Ben Frost’s otherwise electronic score, giving an elegiac note to angular distortions. Impressive and cleanly articulated dancing by wistful Klara Coxill and stern Kevin Memeti. Then a rare chance to see an extract from MacMillan’s Valley of Shadows based on Bassani’s novel The Garden of the Finzi-Continis which foreshadows and depicts the fate of an Italian Jewish family in the second World War. Set to Tchaikovsky’s beautiful Souvenir de Florence, this garden episode depicted the entangled relationships between the flirtatious Micol and her friends and ailing brother. While the young dancers handled the mechanics of the sophisticated partnering well, it was hard to comprehend the significance of this section shorn of its layered and ultimately tragic context, and for these relatively inexperienced dancers to convey subtle differentiation of mood, character and relationship through their embodiment.

Sir Matthew Bourne is a champion of Ballet Central, now directed by Christopher Marney, who restaged the Fairies’ pas d’action from the Prologue of Bourne’s supernatural Sleeping Beauty. Fairies bringing gifts to the infant princess Aurora express their sometimes acerbic characteristics in piquant solos, now for a mix of male and female dancers, with a combination of busy challenging steps and flippant humour. I enjoyed the ebullient and mischievous dancing of diminutive Nanane Miyamoto as Feral.

The evening closed with a celebratory partial revival of Cinderella, made 25 years ago by Central’s much loved former director Christopher Gable, with restoration of original choreography supplemented by additional scenes by Christopher Marney. With a quirky original chamber score by skilful and experienced music director Philip Feeney, this version has many virtues; in its apple fresh ensembles combining folksy peasant dance moves with more balletic language, in its stylish and cruel stepsister and stepbrother here played with up-to-date touches by Imogen Ash and Aitor Viscarolosaga Lopez, in the empathetic grace of the ghost of Cinderella’s mother danced by Haruno Kikuchi, and in the touching central performance of Olivia van Niekerk and her prince Jamie Wills. Gable’s ability to meld dancing and acting in telling detail to build credible relationships between characters brought out the best in the cast who gave committed and emotional performances. At a time when too often ballet can seem to be excessively projected in outward physical display, this was a welcome reminder of the ability of expressive dancing to touch the heart.

Susie Crow

5th June 2018