sun 26/05/2019

Russell Maliphant, The Rodin Project, Sadler’s Wells | reviews, news & interviews

Russell Maliphant, The Rodin Project, Sadler’s Wells

Russell Maliphant, The Rodin Project, Sadler’s Wells

Street culture and high art merge as the past fuses with the present

Dickson Mbi 'becomes' a Rodin bronze© Charlotte MacMillan

Imagine that Rodin’s Thinker gets bored with sitting, head-on-hand, contemplating the folly of humankind and, springing to life, descends from his lofty perch above The Gates of Hell. Having been immobile for a century or more, he is extremely stiff and needs to limber up: cue for some first-rate body popping interspersed with the kind of heroic poses usually reserved for life drawing classes. 

This surreal scenario provides a glimpse of the contrasting ideas and impulses informing Russell Maliphant’s latest work. In The Rodin Project, images from the sculptor’s drawings and bronzes are given life in real time, rather than the limbo of the endless present where art normally resides. As a result, the 19th and 21st centuries are made to collide sometimes awkwardly, and sometimes with real magic.

Rodin often drew and sculpted figures in motion; we are used to artists trying to capture movement in still images, but it seems perverse to invert the process by animating static objects. One involves distilling a movement to its essence by creating a moment of balance; the other requires amplification – inventing what comes after stillness and introducing imbalance. And Maliphant doesn’t always pull it off. 

Slowed to a dream-like tempo, the first half takes place on and around a white mound that looks like a tableau rigged up with bedsheets to approximate rocks or an ice flow (pictured right). We seem to be in a 19th-century studio belonging to an artist like Delacroix, Géricault or Lord Leighton with a penchant for theatrics and classical Greek art, rather than Rodin, whose thinking was far more modern. Dressed in loincloths and toga-like drapes, the three female dancers resemble nymphs from ancient Greek friezes, while the men are dead ringers for Dying Slaves or Fallen Warriors. Although they move fluently from one pose to another, they seem as joyless as an artist’s model required to hold an endless series of difficult poses. Slow delivery even robs the capoeira bout of all passion which, given the obvious expertise of Tommy Franzén and Thomasin Gülgec, is extremely frustrating. 

In the second half, the white sheets are replaced by black slopes resembling a skateboard park. Dressed like kids in leggings and tank tops, the dancers (pictured below) slide, roll, jump and somersault.  The moments of stillness now seem like a BMXer pausing at the top of a slope rather than an artist’s model holding a pose – until, that is, a dancer takes off her togs and, apparently naked, assumes the roles of Rodin’s Iris, Medea, Nymph and Muse. The Burghers of Calais put in a brief but unfortunate appearance; soon, though, its the turn of Dickson Mbi who has enormous dignity and presence as well as a superb physique, so rather than imitating a Rodin bronze, he seems miraculously to become one. His body suddenly jerks into break dancing robotics, then returns to stasis as he flips between past and present and between gravity and apparent weightlessness. 

Past and present fuse in even more miraculous union, when Mbi and Franzén perform a duet on top of and up the side of a wall. Climbing up and balancing against the vertical surface like urban free runners, they also become the damned writhing in anguish on Rodin’s The Gates of Hell. Never have street culture and high art been so effortlessly joined, or past and present been brought together so seemlessly. Its a long moment of pure poetry that is as fresh and as original as Rodin’s Iris must have seemed in 1900. You don’t have to be familiar with Rodin’s work to appreciate the brilliance of this fusion, but it helps so look up The Gates of Hell before you go.

Never have street culture and high art been so effortlessly joined, or past and present been brought together so seemlessly

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