London dance shows 2018: Best ballet and contemporary dance of the year, from Swan Lake to Contagion

Zoe Paskett
Bill Cooper

As we prepare to pirouette into 2019 with glee, we wave goodbye to a fabulous year of dance.

From the landmark ballets of Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty to fascinating new works in tribute to the First World War centenary, there’s never a dull moment.

At the end of the year, we’re looking back at the top shows as chosen by our dance critic Emma Byrne.

Akram Khan’s Xenos

Acclaimed dancer and choreographer Akram Khan bade a moving farewell in a piece inspired by the 1.5 million Indian soldiers who fought in the First World War trenches. “There’s much to praise in Xenos,” says Emma Byrne in her review. “But most impressive of all is Khan’s sheer stage presence and charisma. A thrilling end to a remarkable soloist’s career.”

Royal Ballet’s Swan Lake

(Bill Cooper)

Royal Ballet “dream partnership” Marianela Núñez and Vadim Muntagirov wowed audiences as the lead couple in Swan Lake. According to the Standard’s five star review, choreographer Liam Scarlett made sure that the new production was “nothing short of a triumph”.

Shobana Jeyasingh’s Contagion

The impact of the devastating Spanish Flu pandemic was explored in this show marking the First World War centenary. Staged in the entrance hall of the British Library, it was unconventional viewing for audiences who were dotted around the room. Emma Byrne called it “a challenging and moving, not to mention overdue, act of remembrance to these Great War dead”.

Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Antony Gormley’s Icon

(Mats Backer)

Turner Prize winning Antony Gormley and choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui are long-term collaborators, and Icon proved to be a “striking” addition to their repertoire. This “remarkable” piece employed three and a half tonnes of soft clay “torn from the floor, shaped moulded and pummelled with abandon”.

Royal Ballet’s La Bayadère

Ballet start Marianela Núñez and Natalia Osipova both took centre stage in a rare instance of two big roles for ballerinas. Núñez delivered “quiet intensity”, while Osipova relished “the chance to play bad”. But Emma Byrne gave due credit to the 24-strong corps for their “miraculous” entrance of the shades.

Dimitris Papaioannou’s The Great Tamer

“Surrealist nightmares are rarely this much fun,” said our review. Papaioannou referenced Botticelli, El Greco and Rembrandt in this vision of live vs death, from “macabre still lives to dreamlike images, centred around sleight-of-hand stage tricks and a moveable floor”.

Kenneth MacMillan: Steps in Time

(Bill Cooper)

Viviana Durante’s tribute to MacMillan, one of British ballet’s most celebrated exports, spotlighted three of his rarely performed smaller works. The “fascinating” programme had a bit of Brothers Grimm and “flashes of pure MacMillan brilliance” that left Emma Byrne hungry for more.


Dancer and choreographer Lina Limosani gives the Fates of ancient Greek mythology a modern makeover. “There’s a lot to admire in this rich production,” says Emma Byrne, including “the inventive, mesmeric choreography, Guy Veale’s white noise soundscape and Nigel Levings’s eerie, atmospheric lighting”.

Royal Ballet’s Mayerling

(ROH/Helen Maybanks)

Mayerling’s leading man Rudolf is dark and dangerous – not your average ballet prince. Ryoichi Hirano was compelling in the role, said Emma Byrne. “Though Mayerling is one of the few ballets to put a man at its centre, the evening belonged to its five extraordinary ballerinas, notably Natalia Osipova.”

English National Ballet’s The Sleeping Beauty

Alina Cojocaru stole the show in the English National Ballet’s fairytale. The story remains one of classical ballet’s cornerstones and “ENB’s The Sleeping Beauty makes it look easy”. Kept as close as possible to choreographer Petipa’s original vision, this was “all airiness and light”.