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Choreographics - A Letter To...

English National Ballet School & English National Ballet

by David Mead

May 3, 2013 -- The Place, London, UK

“Choreographics - A Letter to…” is English National Ballet’s new choreography project, which this year saw five dance makers from within the company’s ranks each teamed up with a composer from The Royal College of Music. Director of the project, George Williamson hoped the outcome would be thought-provoking experimental work, made in a true spirit of collaboration that saw structural and aesthetic parity between the art forms. Putting inexperienced choreographers with inexperienced composers is always a risk, albeit one with potentially exciting possibilities, and although all the works had promising moments, whether all that happened quite as much as Williamson hoped is questionable.

Each pairing was asked to start with a letter or extract of written word as stimulus, although only Stina Quagebeur’s “Domna” with music by Laurence Osborn made reference to the precise text in either the short video that preceded each piece or in the programme note. In her video, Quagebeur highlighted the fact that she only got the music a month prior to the performance, which she said meant she couldn’t immerse herself in it as much as she would have liked. She also hinted that its late arrival meant she had to start work on the dance before she had it, and then had no choice but to work with it exactly as presented. Even so, it turned out to be the most complete work of the evening.

Based on Philip Larkin’s poem, “The Loved Ones”, “Domna” sees Nathan Young searching for his true love, the slightly sinister looking Jia Zhang, but every time she appears, she is always just out of reach, and always replaced by another. Each of those three other women are different, their approach ranging from cold to clinging. But there is always a hint of menace, none more so when all appear together at the end.

Running “Domna” a close second was Anton Lukovkin’s “Waiting for the One”. A true collaboration involves choreographer and composer talking to each other, each making requests of the other as they strive to achieve a coherent combined work of art. Several of the choreographers made reference to “being given the music,” suggesting that they felt they had to work with it as it was and could not ask for changes. Whatever the reasons, Lukovkin was the only one who admitted asking his composer to make changes. Although he did not actually say whether he then got what he wanted, the results suggest he did.

“Waiting for the One” explores the forming and then breaking up of relationships through three couples. The first section sees them falling in love, each in their own way; the second section focuses on doubts and separation. Alongside them was a single girl, Bridgett Zehr, always there, always looking in, always partnerless, at least until after a rather odd scene that seemed to be taking place in a 1970s disco.

Lukovkin had some strong ideas, but if anything tried to do too much in the time. With all three couples always on stage together, each involved in their own relationship, it was difficult to take in anything like fully what was happening in each. The constant wandering round of the solo girl only added to the busy feel. She exuded so much more when she stood still. ‘Less is more’, as they say.

Makoto Nakamura’s “A Fruitful Death” purported to explore fears and sadness towards death and how people overcome them in different ways, not that you would have guessed that from the dance alone. To a score that sounded like Japanese atonal music, it opens with Junor Souza, Juan Rodríguez and Anaïs Chalendard upstage in hooded cloaks. The men take it in turns to hold and manipulate Chalendard, whose response to the themes is all outward. But pretty soon she goes and lays down upstage, leaving the dance to the two men, who engage in a powerful duet in which their feelings appear much more deep-seated and come from the inside.

Tamarind Scott’s “Work in Progress” is based around pre-performance pedestrian action and clearly owes much to the personalities and experiences of the dancers involved. The warm-up steps slowly morph into individual phrases, each dancer working in their own square of light. Composer Ryan Cockerham’s soundscape starts with the hum of the audience, that sound heard backstage before the curtain rises. Later, it includes snatches of all those phrases any dancer will have heard thousands of times: “calm”, “hold”, “release that tension”, “feel the floor”, “concentrate”, “breathe” and more. Perhaps more than the others, “Work in Progress” offers considerable scope for development and expansion, and it would be interesting to see where Scott and her dancers could take it.

Fabian Reimar’s “[Co][hes][ion]” was about touch and non-contact manipulation. It does not start well. The opening non-contact duet where Ken Saruhashi controls Erina Takahasi’s movements without actually touching her is dreadfully obvious. A later duet between Nancy Osbaldeston and Laurent Liotardo was much smoother, but all told the work had far too many ideas and struggled to hold the attention.

Joining the ENB choreographers for the evening was the winner of this year’s English National Ballet School Choreography Competition, Emmeline Jansen. Her “Hooked” was impressive for one so young, although it has to be said that she probably had more time and more direct support than the ENB dancers. The duet, with fellow student Ashley Scott, takes place between two portable barres that suggest a studio, and explores reactions to different feelings and impulses. The programme note claimed it is abstract, but as it also said, it is “for audiences to find their own meaning,” and for me there certainly appeared to be a hidden narrative among all the angst and heavy breathing.

Some of the choreographers clearly struggled with the tight schedule, but ENB should be applauded for giving them the opportunity to develop their skills. How nice too to see such importance being attached to specially commissioned music; long may that continue.

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