“Well, it’s very professional, isn’t it,” an elderly male voice behind us said to his companion, in a loud, flat voice at a quiet moment. My sister and I suppressed more than a giggle. It was exactly the sort of thing our granddad would say if he’d have been watching the English National Ballet at that very moment, too.
I’d spoken to my very lovely granddad on the phone that evening, as it happened. Tried to explain we were going to see a show called Strictly Gershwin, because it sounded like something he would very much like.
He missed the point a little. “SIDNEY Gershwin?” he yelled, like I was mad. “There were two brothers, George and Ira, there was no Sidney Gershwin.” We cleared that up, then he told me about the friend of his he always went to the Empire to watch ballet with who died, and the last show they saw together, and we both got a bit sad.
Probably, I should have called him in the morning when I could have at least could have told him that STRICTLY Gershwin is quite the triumph and it’s not just ballet (and that Dave, may he rest in peace, would have probably hated it), but all sorts of dance thrown into the mix too. And there’s no Sidney.
The very gorgeous Audrey Tatou was dreamily flogging Chanel No 5 in a full page ad on the back of the programme. Showing there is, undoubtedly, something to appeal to everyone in this production. And there has to be, as anyone watching BBC4’s Agony and Ecstasy, the fly-on-the-wall documentary about the ENB, would reveal.
Ergo, Strictly Gershwin is a crowd-pleaser, much as its name would suggest. Even its logo is a twee copy of the TV show that clearly inspired the trend. Is this forgivable? Well, if you’ve seen the documentary and understand what the company is up against, yes, it really is. So what we get is ballet receiving the Riverdance treatment – lavish group dances and beautifully intricate duets, infused with influences from other forms of dance from around the US and Europe. Under artistic director Wayne Eagling, it works. It works incredibly well.
The large orchestra takes its place on stage like a big band, and sets a scene that takes the audience everywhere from Hollywood to Paris, London, and Spain. A big tap number is especially delightful, and the principal ballerinas excel throughout.
Rhapsody in Blue, the opener after the interval, was a particularly strong hybrid of classical strings and ballet dance, done so well you wouldn’t think there was much of an adjustment for the ballet professionals to make to modern jazz at all.
There’s no storyline to Strictly Gershwin per se, but the dance is interspersed with performances from competent vocalists (the Maida Vale singers) and two recurring tap dancers who continually stole the show, so things never get dull.
In fact, the dancers, orchestra and nostalgic set alone are so enchanting, a big screen above the stage barely seems worthwhile. It occasionally beamed up pictures of Fred Astaire, Marlene Dietrich and other stars and symbols of the golden age of Hollywood, but it seemed slightly tacky, like the USA-themed segment, for which the costumes seemed overbearing and cartoony.
So there you go. Strictly Gershwin is literally the show that has everything. It is technically and visually amazing; there’s the beautiful glittery ballerinas inspiring the next generation to dance; the glamour that attracts big advertisers like Audrey Tatou and Chanel for us grown up types; and the nostalgia for those who remember swaying to Gershwin in dancehalls everywhere the first time round.
Everybody knows there are a lot of problems facing the ENB and the arts in general, funding most of all — and as far as all that is concerned, the show is a masterstroke, pulled off with aplomb. Yes. See it. It’s zeitgeisty and it’s populist, of that there is no doubt. But it is impossible that a show like this could not make you happy and proud we do have an English National Ballet, and that will beat the snobbery of any argument hands down.
Strictly Gershwin is on at the Empire until Saturday (November 5). For more information, visit the theatre’s website.