Awakenings – Bloomsbury Theatre, London

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

Choreographer: Andrew McNicol

Premiering its new show Awakenings at the Bloomsbury Theatre, the McNicol Ballet Collective brings its contemporary approach to a quartet of works exploring togetherness.

Presenting two pieces in the first half of the show, Of Silence is the stronger running at around 25-minutes and exploring connection, individuality and supportiveness with six dancers and a score composed by Peteris Vasks. Starting as a tender, melancholy piece the increasing choral tones transition the style to something more grandiose as the score unfolds. Across those variations McNicol weaves something quite mesmerising, a piece that offers group work with pairs and solo segments that flow seamlessly between movements.

The performers reflect the changing pace in Of Silence, sometimes given time to complete languid shapes while, as the music quickens, they are required to spin and place one another almost relentlessly. Bella Thomas’ costumes enhance the overall experience, giving long skirts to the men whose side-to-side movement is limited by the extent of the fabric that tightens their choreography while the more freeing comfort-wear of the women gives an ease to the style and flow.

The Awakenings opener, though balletic, is far looser, giving the five-strong ensemble for In Ecstasy far less time to complete each individual movement. Dressed in fiery red lycra, this is an athletic piece that looks for sculptural shapes within the architecture of the dance rather than clean lines and while it occasionally looks less than pretty, the earthier texture of this dance and its ideas about learning and imitation fit the overall theme even if the movements themselves are not always fully arresting.

After the interval, the company return for the playful Bates Beats set to the work of Mason Bates who merges tinkly music box sounds with darker dance beats to create a dynamism in the score that McNicol draws into the choreography. As the dancers skitter across the stage in spotlight and smoke effects, Bates Beats is really an anthology piece in which the ensemble is rarely on stage together, appearing in a series of little skits that have a brief but intense presence in the programme.

The evening builds to McNichol’s reworking of Stravinsky’s Firebird created for six dancers which extracts key segments from the rich and luscious score to create a pared down but stylised excerpt that draws on theatre and silent movie concepts. Firebird Reimagined has the clearest storytelling of the Awakenings set, focusing on a young man trapped in a repetitive society inspired and freed by the transformative arrival of the titular bird.

McNicol draws clear distinction between the automaton-like grind of the man’s life with robotic and doll-like shapes created with stiff limbs and stilted movements, and the magical release of the Firebird who brings fluidity, colour and partnership to the stage as she tries to break the spell. The final scene in which the backlit Firebird flutters triumphant is pure silent movie and McNichol successfully makes the piece his own.

Thomas’ minimalist costumes create consistency between the dances with careful use of material to reflect their changing tone of the four compositions which two slightly superfluous backstage videos that fill the time between the numbers danced in combinations by Winnie Dias, Shevelle Dynott, Marina Fraser, Kristen McGarrity, Joshua McSherry-Gray and Laurie McSherry-Gray. These world premiere pieces appropriately entitled Awakening were conceived before and during the pandemic, and although their stage debut has been delayed, this company is wide awake and raring to go.

Reviewed on 13 November 2021

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