mon 15/07/2024

Rambert Dance, Sadler's Wells/ Michael Clark Company, Barbican Theatre | reviews, news & interviews

Rambert Dance, Sadler's Wells/ Michael Clark Company, Barbican Theatre

Rambert Dance, Sadler's Wells/ Michael Clark Company, Barbican Theatre

Forty-year-old works and a 50-year-old enfant terrible compete for attention

Labyrinth of Love: How does Rambert's newest commission stack up against, say, Michael Clark?© Simon Tomkinson/Rambert

Waves of modern dance history beat upon the shore this week with Rambert at Sadler’s Wells offering four works going back nearly 40 years, and Michael Clark’s newest Britdance creation at the Barbican. The hip people will be at the Barbican, of course, of which more further down. But if you think Clark is a shock jock, you must be as middle-aged as he is - just turned 50 he has, the man with the child in his eyes and nappy pin in his ear. Shocks, by their nature, don't last.

Other things matter, like freshness, the capacity always to be new.

At Rambert’s four-bill it’s the American veterans Merce Cunningham and Paul Taylor who shine brightest and freshest and the new piece that looks stale. I sigh as I write this, feeling like some dreary codger hankering after old days, but it’s a matter of selectivity. Rambert have the rare clout to champion the new choreographic voice, and it's like backing horses, basically, unpredictable till the day. Their brand-new creation by Irish choreographer Marguerite Donlon may have looked good on paper: Labyrinth of Love, a promising title. It's more of a cantata with dance attached than a dance partnering music.

Composed by Michael Daugherty for a quirkily jazzy little chamber orchestra, it sets a series of “love poems” ranging from Sappho to Liz Taylor’s journal, sung by a wandering soprano surrounded by dancers. There is a mirrored floor, a fine video projection on two tiers, meadow plants in gigantic zoom, or flames or underground tree roots, which all lead to thoughts of Persephone who spent six months every year below ground with her husband Hades, god of the underworld, and six above with her mother Demeter, goddess of the crops (hence winter and summer).

The singer prowls in a fine white evening dress with tufty shreds on it, while the men roll and gambol, as if they were her fleet of Pekineses hoping to be taken for a walk; the side women in their white swimsuits seem rather like spare parts. The technically adept mise-en-scène looks as if it aims to be going somewhere, but the soprano Kirsty Hopkins so clouded her words that you could never be engaged with whatever-it-was. The choreography seems to have come out of one of those dance courses where everything goes, no vocabulary or style is specially studied, and the result is a box of clunky all-sorts: a Forsythean yank of the leg here, a McGregorish wiggle of the torso there, a De Keersmaeker-esque synchronised bit of bob and thrash. As Lenin said, better to have less, if it's better.

Viz, Taylor’s Roses and Cunningham’s Sounddance, which are terribly old in today’s terms - the Cunningham is nearly 40 years old, the Taylor 30-odd. But they're wonderful additions this year to Rambert rep, reminding us what quality choreography can say without any help from other means. The two men were near-contemporaries as young dancers in Martha Graham’s company, and represent opposite poles, Taylor the lyrical joined-up one, Cunningham the man of disconnect and abstraction. But what they share (and learned from Graham perhaps) is the exactness of the way they chose their weapons.

Romantic lyricism can’t be creamy vanilla alone - it needs the zesty, nutty bits

Roses is a discreetly distant love-dance for six couples set to Wagner’s amorous Siegfried Idyll, where music you expect from a 100-piece orchestra is here delivered intimately by about 15 players. It almost works, so hard does Rambert’s little orchestra strive for lushness under Paul Hoskins' direction. Roses has the air of a nostalgic reunion: the women’s long vest-dresses echo Martha Graham, and the counterpointing of five couples in black with a separate pair in white also snags Balanchine’s Serenade in its memory-bank. The dance is spare, selectively balletic, but also hieratic as if from an old civilisation. Mixed into it are Taylor’s characteristically mischievous backflips and cartwheels for both sexes, as if romantic lyricism can’t be creamy vanilla alone - it needs the zesty, nutty bits.

Julia Gillespie, an elegant blonde who joined Rambert from the ballet side of the fence, stood out among the black-clad couples with a wise tenderness in her dancing; Angela Towler was less suited in the white duet that Taylor set to a Mozartian clarinet andante - her back and shoulders are strong, not pliant and yielding like the clarinettist, Ian Scott.

sounddance chris nashNor did Merce Cunningham’s Sounddance (pictured right, © Chris Nash/Rambert) have an altogether unstodgy performance from Rambert’s healthily nourished team, but you could feel the audience's joy as they watched this eccentric genius’s strange alchemy with non sequiturs.

It starts with a lone man being spat out onto the stage through a heavily swagged canvas curtain, followed by further sputterings of dancers; it ends palindromically 17 minutes later with the first man being sucked back behind the curtain (shades of the epic Ocean nearly 20 years later in 1994).

The dancers, in beige tops and powder-blue leggings, step almost as if on thin ice, planting their feet carefully and delicately, freezing in a balance, falling against a convenient colleague and achieving a surprise geometric equilibrium, like sticky molecules reforming. David Tudor’s fascinating electronic score twangs, flicks, quivers, vibrates and does countless other percussive things with soundwaves, while the mysterious arithmetic of the dancing carries on regardless: two plus two equals three plus one, plus one equals five... The ensemble never ceases to mutate, a magical, elfin text which I'm so thankful to see.

Richard Alston’s witty 1982 boy’s solo Dutiful Ducks made a clever aperitif to it, running a funny nonsensical voice-over “dutiful-dutiful-ducks”) against a flickering, large-limned dance stylishly performed by Dane Hurst without overwriting the ghost of its first creator, the already-great-at-20 Michael Clark. Talking of whom...


Above: Relaxed Muscle play "Sexualised" from their album A Heavy Nite With...

... Meanwhile Michael Clark’s new work for 2012, called New Work 2012, is a characteristic Clark “event”, with the presence of Jarvis Cocker in his Relaxed Muscle persona of the semi-mummified Darren Spooner a major audience draw at the Barbican. This kind of collaboration between ballet iconoclast choreographer Clark and his old rock buddies is the best way to experience his unique showbiz magnetism.

The first half is brief, skimpily imagined and dull to the point of toothache, a constipated-looking ballet class for randomly appearing dancers in black, with the only amusements the dropping in out of the ceiling of an apparently dead body and a blink-and-you-miss-him appearance by Clark himself in a clownishly baggy hoodie. Twenty minutes of this run by and you might be asking for your money back, even if you like Scritti Politti on the speakers.

But the second half is another matter altogether - it has some extraordinarily strange stuff, the most stimulating and unpredictable mood-movement from Clark recently. The dancers reflect Clark's range of references: the ballet-dancers Oxana Panchenko and Kate Coyne, the dramatically vivid Melissa Hetherington, the boyish Merce Cunningham specialist from Liverpool Julie Cunningham (no relation), Jonathan Olivier (who was so good in Matthew Bourne's Play Without Words recently), the beautiful Harry Alexander, golden Benjamin Warbis, assertive Simon Williams. Their varied bodies are packed into shiny, flame-coloured skinsuits, with a spacey video animation behind them spelling out questions in mirror writing: "Why me? Why you? I'm thinking about starting a zoo." The dancers strike, with numbing slowness, some high-tension balances that might almost be created in CGI, so odd are they, while Pulp's seductive "F.E.E.L.I.N.G.C.A.L.L.E.D.L.O.V.E." plays through the speakers. The analytical grind of the first half has been wholly invaded by a kind of trance state.

Then uproar: the screen flies away, Cocker's alter egos, the Hallowe’eny-looking band Relaxed Muscle, are revealed in person, and decibels of distorted beats and guitar drill through the roots of your teeth. Now the dancers reappear in stylish black and white, in pop art stripes or yin-yang complementary aspects, but the moves degrade uninterestingly into basic gymball routines (with stools instead of gymballs), while the stage is totally magnetised by Cocker’s half-decayed-looking Darren Spooner creepily moseying around, frightening the people in the stalls. It doesn’t matter what Clark offers from now on: it’s the singer’s night.

So - a good show? Oh yes, finally, in terms of electricity. Definitely an "event". At well under an hour’s actual show (plus interval), some may not find it quite enough bang for the buck. But next to me they were screaming with happiness, though it was only just nine o'clock.

  • Rambert perform their four-bill at Sadler's Wells till tomorrow (Saturday), then tour repertory to Theatre Royal, Plymouth 24 - 26 October; Theatre Royal, Bath 8 - 10 November; Regent Theatre, Stoke 14 & 15 November;
    Venue Cymru, Llandudno 23 &  24 Nov; Theatre Royal, Norwich 29 & 30 Nov; with further dates in 2013 (see website)
  • Michael Clark Company perform New Work 2012 at the Barbican Theatre, London tonight & tomorrow, then next Tuesday-Saturday

Watch the young iconoclast Michael Clark in his mould-breaking peak during the mid-Eighties

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