The sight of the empty red seats of Sadler’s Wells, London, at the start of this digital festival of dance is a melancholy reminder of just how little live dance it’s been possible to see in lockdown. Spread over three programmes, all on BBC iPlayer, Dancing Nation is an equally potent celebration of the current richness of UK dance-making, revealed in a series of excerpts either filmed specially or pre-recorded as part of a collaboration between the theatre and BBC Arts.
The standout is Shades of Blue, by Anthony and Kel Matsena, which reflects on the Black Lives Matter protests, revealing a remarkable ability to make dance work both as metaphor and naturalistic image. Its anger, urgency and power overcome the limitations of the digital format, bursting through the screen. As too does the glimpse of Oona Doherty’s Hope Hunt and the Ascension Into Lazarus, about car thieves and Caravaggio, full of originality and energy.
Doherty’s work benefits from being shot in a Belfast shopping centre. Elsewhere, the decision to film pieces – most notably two meditations on the effects of the moon from duo Humanhood – in the foyers of Sadler’s Wells is a mistake; the buses passing don’t add much to its fluid moves. It’s hard to escape the horrible feeling that this is dance being made relevant and accessible, a tendency that also afflicts presenter Brenda Emmanus’s greens-are-good-for-you script, which tells us what we should feel not what we need to know.
The dance is good enough to justify itself – especially the agonised BLKDOG, a 2018 hip-hop piece from Botis Seva’s Far from the Norm; the lyrical Lazuli Sky by Birmingham Royal Ballet; Shobana Jeyasingh’s exceptional Contagion, which deftly conjures the horror of the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918 and seems horribly relevant now; and Matthew Bourne’s Spitfire, a wonderful spoof that lifts lockdown gloom with its pure, inventive joy.