35th Anniversary Gala, Vienna Festival Ballet at Worthing Pavilion

Emily-Joy Smith, Perdita-Jayne Lancaster, Samantha Bosshardt, Helena Casada Cortes, Eleonora Enas, Bethany Headland, Aglaia Mucha, Brittany Haws, Gabrielle Fairhead, Valentina Leali; Luca Varone, Ben Cook, Tsvetan Stankov, Ashley Selfe.

You didn’t think ballet dancers could be so spicy, would you? Well probably, if you’ve only ever watched the big four or five classics ― your Sleeping Beauty, The Nutcracker, your Giselle, Coppelia, or your Swan Lake. Which is what you’ve probably seen Vienna Festival Ballet dance in Worthing before.

On Wednesday, you’d have seen them performing something totally unexpected unless you seen it here nine years ago. Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, choreographed by Daryl Raizal, cheeky, sexy, fun, is what will stick in the minds of those lucky enough to see this Spring Tour of their 35th Anniversary Gala show.

Sign up to our daily SussexWorld Today newsletter

Ballet mistress Emily Hufton has shelved her admitted deep disappointment at having danced for VFB in the intervening years, never to have performed this Rhapsody In Blue, which on this bill of 11 different ballet items was itself worth the ticket price. Here, with their taller two boys, she combines the company’s naughtiest five girls, for which competition for selection undoubtedly fierce. There are five black tutus (What? Really? For jazzy, bluesy Gershwin? Yes! And why not?), and two pairs of long, male black leggings. There is moody lighting, no scenery.

The bare male chests of Varone and Cook, the identity of Bosshardt, Smith, Enas, Lancaster and Mucha disguised under bobsy blonde or brunette wigs, hip wiggles and coquetry. The girls are decidedly on top. It’s enough to make a guy take up dancing. If Gershwin had composed a sequel, Raizal might have been tempted to take us on into something burlesque. Someone quickly find him some suitable music, quick!.

Yet people all over the country, frightened of any ballet not the standard meat and two veg, have been missing in their hundreds this unprecedented showcase of the best small provincial touring international company that this nation gets to see. Talent is drawn like osmosis from all 14 in the company as they interchange roles and costumes and switch from one atmosphere to another.

Slices of ballet’s bread and butter with runny honey warmed up the night. Lancaster was your perfect 16-year-old ballerina daughter as Princess Aurora in highlights from Sleeping Beauty Act 1, including her surmounting the tough and unforgiving Rose Adage. It was followed by the Bluebird Pas de Deux featuring Stankov, the new Bulgarian, and, from Madrid, Cortes, who was to prove simply irrepressible on this night, as on probably most others, too, this Spring.

Swirling white fabric and VFB’s so-consistently shaped ensemble work followed in The Nutcracker’s Snowflakes Waltz, but then we were into the contrast of the tambourine Tarantella from VFB’s 2013 production, Snow White, choreographed by Worthing’s own resident former Royal Ballet star, Barry McGrath – who was here tonight. This number stepped out of past into the nearly-now, and then up stole the curtain on Rhapsody In Blue, which VFB and Raizal here now prove to have imbued with a timelessness of its own.

The evening also brought us the romping and tumbling Seven Dwarfs’ Hip Hop Scene (Snow White – Cortes un-miscastable as Happy), The Mirlitons with pan pipes featuring Bosshardt, Headland and Lancaster, then (also from The Nutcracker) The Trepak, in which Essex lad Ashley Selfe delivered one of several roles he learned at breakneck speed when abruptly joining the company and the tour to replace the injured Jordi Arno Rubio.

From Coppelia came The Corn Pas de Deux and then the Boys’ Dance with the full VBF quartet, and Snow White’s Grand Finale was the whooping last furlong of this uplifting show.

But encapsulating the quality and the artistic challenge present was the evening’s second-half opener. The lakeside in Swan Lake Act 2 meant complete transformation from anything else all evening. The corps’ faces each suddenly unrecognisable from before in now the tragedy of their evil enchantment by Rothbart. With Ben Cook as Prince Siegried we had his world famous Pas de Deux with swan princess Odette.

And is this, the most expressively demanding role on the night, was Emily-Joy Smith. Could we be moved by so serious scene as this on such a joyful night? Smith danced with her every move speaking a different shade or shaft of emotion, and moved we most assuredly were.

VFB’s staunch fans present were on Cloud 9 tonight with but one tinge of regret, not from the dancing but because of a dancer missing. The blonde Jodie McKnight, so individual and inventive lately here as Clara (The Nutcracker) and an Ugly Sister (Cinderella), and also starring as Coppelia, is quite seriously ill. The news I learn is that it is not life-threatening, so the hope must be for her full recovery and for the affectionate welcome she’ll receive around the country on her return.

VFB’s Gala tour visits Horsham Capitol next Friday (May 15), their last West Sussex appearance. They will tour Coppelia this Autumn, when the special 35th Anniversary Tour brochure will be on sale.

Richard Amey