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Rambert Dance Company

'Swamp', 'Curious Conscience', 'Constant Speed'

by David Mead

November 2, 2005 -- Milton Keynes Theatre, Milton Keynes, England

The bad news for Rambert Dance Company is that Rafael Bonachela is leaving them to go independent. The good news is that his parting gift, “Curious Conscience”, a large ensemble piece for eighteen dancers, is yet another stunning work from this supremely gifted choreographer.

For his music, Bonachela chose Benjamin Britten’s “Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings”, composed during the Second World War and itself set to six poems about sleep, night and dreams, including works by William Blake, John Keats and Alfred Lord Tennyson. The choreography too is very dark and full of torment. These dreams are menacing and nightmarish.

The work opens and closes to a haunting horn solo, to which Bonachela has choreographed two equally disturbing solos, reflecting what is to come and what has gone. Gone, but it seems not forgotten. For these solos the dancers are dressed in white, but for the rest of the piece they are in simple black vests and shorts or skirts, always with sombre expressions, reflecting the mood.

Each section, varying from all male or all female duets to whole ensembles, gives us something different. In contrast to the other two works on the programme, the choreography, full of Bonachela’s trademark sharpness, is mostly counter–musical, which makes it difficult to simultaneously listen to the words and concentrate on the dance. But because the moods of both words and dance are complimentary, this matters less.

“Curious Conscience” is visually stunning thanks to Lee Curran’s lighting and Alan Macdonald’s great designs. They have combined to create a surreal landscape with the dancers seen at various times between eleven thin black pillars against a red cyclorama, or as some eerie shadow-like figures behind a semi-transparent screen, slit top to bottom so the dancers can enter and exit through it.

What it all means was for us to determine. No matter what that determination was, the performance was captivating and definitely worth another viewing.

“Curious Conscience” was the extremely tasty filling between a revival of Michael Clark’s “Swamp” from 1986 and Mark Baldwin’s “Constant Speed”, created last year as part of the celebrations for Einstein Year.

“Swamp”, which opened the proceedings, is an entertaining fusion of ballet and Cunningham technique that makes full use of the stage and Bruce Gilbert’s pulsing music. Four men and four women engage in shifting, ever changing relationships, often reflecting each other’s movements although rarely making eye contact. Clark is always looking to surprise us, whether its unexpected re-entries by someone who has only just left the stage, or sudden bursts of allegro (usually, it seemed, danced by the dynamic and assured Robin Gladwin) in amongst slow movement.

I really want to like Mark Baldwin’s “Constant Speed”, I really do. It is light, frothy, colourful, occasionally athletic, has moments of humour and is danced to some listenable, although hardly arresting Lehar tunes. Perhaps being light and frothy is the root of the problem. Underneath the surface there really is nothing there. It’s like some colourful milkshake that’s been whisked too much and all the liquid has turned to bubbles.

There is certainly lots of energy with multiple stage entries and exits, the dancers constantly forming new partnerships. The dancers don’t only run on and off though, there is also lots of running around the stage. Sometimes it seems neverending. It’s a very strange stylized run, with small steps and arms pumping, presumably to give the impression of speed, but it does look odd.

Another problem is that it’s been “over-designed”. The men’s costumes, simple unitards, are fine, but the women’s are another matter. What seem to be ill-fitting, oversized nighties are bad enough, but the headgear is worse, whether it’s the bubble-wrap shower caps from the opening, or the giant pom-poms later on.

Someone once suggested to me that the giant glitter ball that appears near the end was supposed to represent some giant molecule. Maybe it does, but it looks more like someone said “let’s have a glitter ball here” and someone else said “why not” without really thinking about it. What this ball achieves is dazzling anyone sitting high up in the theatre.

“Constant Speed” has been described as “physics in motion.” Maybe that’s it. I never was much good at science.

As ever, Rambert was accompanied by the excellent London Musici led by Paul Hoskins.

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