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La La La Human Steps - 'Amjad'

by David Mead

February 5, 2008 -- Hippodrome Theatre, Birmingham, UK

Memories, says choreographer Edouard Lock, “always create an interesting tension in a theatre.”  “Swan Lake” and “The Sleeping Beauty” are two ballets that pretty much everyone thinks they know something about, and has some sort of association or recollection of, even if they don’t really know where those memories originate.  It is just those relationships that Lock draws on in “Amjad”.  But rather than trying to retell or reimagine the well-known stories, he has instead focused on the themes and imagery within the works.

Lock is clearly drawn to the idea of the forest as an allegory of the unconscious, perhaps even of dreams.  Indeed, the shadowy side of memory is evident throughout, the whole work seemingly set in some dark world where dream and reality are all mixed up.  Armand Vaillancourt’s set helps the mood along with panels suggesting trees and other images from the ballets that appear and just as quickly disappear.  Also periodically, three discs descend from above, on to which close ups of beads or pearls, branches, leaves and brilliant red petals contrasted with virginal white sheets are projected.  The meaning is never explicit, but they are hugely suggestive of links to the ballets.

Lock’s nine dancers carry the work off supremely.  His high-voltage choreography often calls for electrifyingly fast pirouettes, sharp pointe work or changes of direction that are all delivered perfectly, with amazing precision and quite fearlessly.  Many of the duets in particular were very athletic and physical, at times even downright sexy, as the dancers pushed and pulled rather than simply supported each other.

“Amjad” is an Arabic term that can mean either a man or a woman.  At first, Lock seems to give his dancers clearly defined roles as we identify a Prince chasing his swan or hunting for his Beauty.  But just like memories, things soon begin to blur, as the men start to take on swan-like movements, which for Lock includes a sharp flapping of the wrists alongside the expected arms.  He even throws in a man on pointe, doing exactly the same steps as the women.  And so cleanly, precisely and superbly does Dominic Santia do it that it seems perfectly natural.  In fact, although the choreography doesn’t allow for characters as such, Lock’s dancers all managed to convey their own personality and style.  Best of all was Xuan Cheng, who was always especially quick and sharp, with every movement perfectly and cleanly executed.

The dark and almost mysterious mood is further enhanced by the costumes and John Munro’s superb lighting.  Lock has the men in dark suits, and the women in sleek, high cut black leotards and black tights.  The dancers are often starkly lit by just one or two white lights which change sharply, reflecting the crispness of the choreography.  Munro achieves an almost black and white cinematic feel as we flit from one flashback to another, as if we were in some memory that still had to be coloured in.

Gavin Bryars’ brilliant reworking of the music from the two ballets for piano, cello and two violins – and played live on stage – simply added to the overall effect.  Just like the choreography and just like memories, the familiar tunes come and go, sliding in and out and even occasionally seemingly getting mixed up with each other.

“Amjad” is not a remaking, a retelling or even really a reimagining of the famous works on which it is draws.  In it, Lock has not only succeeded in mixing the classical and the modern, he has retained the essence of the ideas of the ballets on which it is based while moving far enough away that we see it as something different.  Perhaps in deconstructing them in this way, he has gotten nearer to true essence of the original works than many who have gone before. 

Yet it never reaches the point of complete abstraction, and anyone with even a passing knowledge of “Swan Lake” or “The Sleeping Beauty” will have their memories awakened, though it is not necessary to have any knowledge of them to enjoy Lock’s creation.  At 100 minutes with no interval, it is long, and themes and ideas do recur in the choreography, but it never gets overly repetitive and the performance sped by.  So much so, I could quite happily have sat through it all again.

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