The Best of Dance 2009

Jane Coyle on the highlights of the year

The past 12 months have had us on our mettle, with an unexpectedly wide-ranging variety of dance events, which have been, in turn, controversial, ground-breaking, funny and downright gorgeous.

Full marks to the Grand Opera House for programming two separate weeks of world class ballet, which might not have done the requisite business at the box office but nevertheless provided ballet lovers with some rare and memorable treats.

The Leeds-based Northern Ballet Theatre has been a regular visitor since its early days and was at the forefront of the burgeoning narrative dance movement. Artistic director David Nixon’s meltingly beautiful Wuthering Heights left all who saw it with an unforgettable impression of passionate dramatic dance, striking visual images and vivid storytelling.

In October, the Birmingham Royal Ballet – formerly known as Sadler’s Wells Ballet – arrived with another, albeit less familiar, literary adaptation of Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano, the tale of the noble spirited soldier with the outsized nose, whose lyrical poetry has the power to charm the birds out of the trees. Alas, this luscious, superbly performed piece did not attract the packed houses guaranteed for ballets about dying swans and sugar-coated fairies, and one can only hope that the company will continue to grace Belfast with its presence.

Maiden Voyage commissioned a new dance piece, based on TS Eliot’s bleak Four Quartets, with original music by Neil Martin, which toured successfully in the north.

To Be Straight With YouThen there was - and is - Dance United NI, an organisation that works with people on the margins of society, which presented a heart-warming celebration of dance and international culture in St George’s Market in April. It brought together children from Elmgrove Primary School in east Belfast and elderly residents of a nearby housing development for a poignant performance entitled Over the Halfpenny Bridge, which explored the history of the Great Famine and articulated personal memories of Belfast’s more recent past.

The programme for this year’s Belfast Festival at Queen’s was distinguished by its dance input, including the uber-sleek and stylish Bonachela Dance Company’s abstract piece The Land of Yes and the Land of No. Nobody who saw it will forget Amy Hollingsworth’s mesmerising, award-nominated solo performance in the opening minutes of this expressive, thought-provoking piece.

The Irish company Legitimate Bodies cleverly incorporated text with dance in Hanging In There, a witty, gravity-defying interpretation of the political cliché and double speak, which was an integral part of the peace process. And the zany Ponydance company’s Bodies, Buns and Boyfriends, developed from a short award-winning piece for the Old Museum’s Pick’n’Mix festival, gave a welcome shot in the arm to the city’s dance community.

But nowhere did text and dance work so powerfully together than in DV8’s To Be Straight With You, in which witness accounts of homophobic experiences from all over the world were translated into glittering nuggets of physical expression. The performance prompted a post-show discussion, whose panel included gay rights activist Peter Tatchell and leading members of the Muslim and Christian communities. It was a stirring example of art meeting politics and religion head on – and winning.