Reflections on BBC Young Dancer and the premiere of An Italian In Madrid by Richard Alston Dance Company
Last March I had the privilege of sitting in the auditorium of the Riverfront Arts Centre in Newport, for four consecutive nights, watching some of the brightest young dance talent in the country take to the stage in the category finals of the inaugural BBC Young Dancer 2015 competition. As the only cross-category judge, I had the enormous privilege of watching 20 young dancers spread across four separate dance disciplines - contemporary dance, ballet, hip hop and South Asian dance (Bharatanatyam and Kathak) - compete for each category title and and a place in the Grand Final at Sadler's Wells in May, and broadcast live on BBC2.
When I say it was a privilege, to be involved in BBC Young Dancer, it really was. The quality of the dancing and the dancers was very high, with those category finalists having being whittled down from a whole series of heats up and down the country over the previous months. On the first evening, I remember watching the very first contemporary solo - a young man from Central School of Ballet, dancing his own choreography; what immediately struck me from the first 30 seconds, was the quality of his performance and that the choreography was not the kind of wham-bam razzmatazz showpiece that one might expect from a competition piece, instead it had a quiet intensity, a beautiful interior quality, what I would call dancing from the inside-out, nothing thrown out at the audience, but movement that drew you in. By the time I and my fellow judges had watched all five contemporary category finalists dance two contrasting solos and a duet, I was blown away by the quality of the dancing from all these young artists aged 16-19. I know my fellow judges were similarly impressed. For me, the added privilege was that I got to do that all again over the following three nights in each of the three other dance styles.
By the end of the four nights, I and my fellow expert judges had chosen four category winners and two wild cards to go through to the Grand Final. The winner of the South Asian category was Vidya Patel, a young dancer from Birmingham, training in one of the nine national Centres for Advanced Training. The CATs, as we call them, select and nurture young dancers aged 10-18, with exceptional potential. As a government funded, means-tested programme that has run for over 11 years, with great success, many of the students are supported with full scholarships and the vast majority of the students continue onto vocational training. Many former CAT students are now dancing professionally in companies in the UK and abroad.
Vidya was, as it happened, the only female finalist in the Grand Final, so she was always going to stand out. But what shone through unquestionably was the quality and clarity of her dancing and her magnetic stage presence. I witnessed many comments on social media, by dance aficionados and by people who wouldn't describe themselves as experts. What their comments had in common was that watching an full hour of Classical Indian dance on TV had clearly been a huge eye opener. Many were thrilled and surprised at the combined beauty of the music, the dance, the performances and the costumes. As they say, seeing is believing. What BBC Young Dancer did, alongside showcasing inspiring young talent, was to allow huge numbers of people to enjoy a whole range of dance that they might not otherwise have seen.
Vidya did not win the Grand Final. The overall prize was one by the youngest contestants Connor Scott, who was a wild-card finalist who came through form the contemporary dance category. One thing I've learnt, is that competitions are not always just about winning. We had our own competition at The Place, for 10 years, The Place Prize, sponsored by Bloomberg, the largest choreography prize in Europe. Many people assume that Hofesh Shechter won the prize in 2004. He didn't, although the piece won the audience prize, but the profile he gained and the mark he made took him quickly on to great things. In that way, competitions are often more importantly about what happens next. Vidya has had an extraordinary year; I have found it hard to keep up with the number of high profile appearances she has made, often as a soloist, but also, for example in the Dance Proms at the Albert Hall, as one of a large group of dancers. She returned to the Sadler's Wells stage in Sampled earlier this year and she has just come back from touring in India. She has become, a great ambassador for South Asian dance, inspiring, no doubt, countless other young dancers. But perhaps the most unexpected and unlikely outcome from this last year was for her to end up on stage for two nights at Sadler's Wells performing a central role in a new dance by veteran choreographer Richard Alston, and dancing alongside some of the top contemporary performers in the country in Richard Alston Dance Company.
As well as dancing myself in at least five of Richard Alston's pieces during my dancing days, in my current role I have worked closely for the last eight and a half years with Richard Alston, in his role as Artistic Director of The Place and of his company. I know him well enough to know that he takes his primary inspiration from music and also from the dancers he chooses to work with. His latest work An Italian In Madrid takes inspiration from the music of Scarlatti, and the fact that the composer spent years in Madrid as music tutor to a Portuguese princess. But he has clearly also been inspired by Vidya and the rhythmic vitality of Kathak, and how that sits against Scarlatti's rhythmically rich and complex Baroque piano sonatas. What has been wonderful to watch in the process of making this work, is the magical chemistry between Richard, his company of 10 dancers, Vidya and the music, played so beautifully by pianist Jason Ridgway. Each has rubbed off on the other. There has been a lot of learning, respect and curiosity on all fronts. Last night that particular alchemy reached a wonderful climax with the official World Premiere of An Italian In Madrid on the main stage at Sadler's Wells to a packed auditorium.
Words didn't come easily for me immediately after the performance, that's often a good sign. But I was without doubt on a high, and I have a certainty in my bones that this new work and Vidya's performance in it will remain etched on my dance consciousness for years to come. The audience response last night was unequivocal. The piece, and Vidya's performance and that of her fellow Alston dancers went down a storm. For a young dancer who has only recently turned 20, that's a fabulous achievement.
I'm delighted that BBC Young Dancer will return in 2017. In the meantime Vidya has said to me that last year's BBC Young Dancer experience has helped open so many doors for her. I know the same is true for many of the other young dancers who took part, quite a few of whom I've also seen on stage since last year's competition, and followed their progress with interest. After last nights premiere, chatting to Vidya and her proud parents, we all agreed that a year ago, none of us could ever have imagined this outcome. A lot can happen in a year.