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La La La Human Steps: 'New Work'

by David Mead

September 28, 2011 -- Sadler's Wells Theatre, London, UK

Édouard Lock’s ‘New Work’ is packed with some of the fastest, spikiest ballet you are ever likely to see. It is dance on the edge; real Formula 1 stuff. It is exciting and thrilling as the dancers joust with each other lit only by stark spotlights on a largely otherwise dark stage save sandstone coloured slatted panels that fly in and out from time to time. With everyone dressed only in black, the lighting accentuates their limbs and cast shadows in the most beautiful way. They scurry from spot to spot, the dancers sometimes struggling to keep up with the instantaneous change. The movement itself is often so fast that all the eyes have time to register is a blur left by a sweeping arm or a flashing pointe shoe.

It is all based on two tragic operas that deal with frustrated love, Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneus” and Gluck’s “Orpheus and Eurydice.” The unusual name of the piece came about because Lock thought it presumptuous to put a new name of these most iconic of opera titles. Lock doesn’t believe in telling stories though, so what he presents instead is a non-narrative piece on a theme of anger and loss, based largely around a series of duets and trios. It’s an idea with merit and that works well. The dance is taut, even if the excessive speed of movement takes much of the individuality out of the choreography and makes it cold, except that is when one dancer was heard quite distinctly to say ‘sorry’ to his partner following a move that went slightly awry.

Sections of the original Purcell and Gluck scores have been similarly abstracted by Gavin Bryers and Blake Hargreaves. The resulting score for piano, viola, cello and saxophone, played live with the addition of a few recorded distant ghostly howls and screams, has more than a touch of minimalism about it.

The dance is impressively physical. Despite the speed, the clarity and sharpness of the steps, turns and extensions is most impressive. But it is also relentless. And the longer it goes on the less of a grip it has. There are momentary respites when one of the women lies on the floor like a Greek nymph. A couple of seconds later, though, and we are off at high speed once more. Considerably longer pauses come courtesy of two screens that descend and interrupt proceedings, each showing a close-up film of a woman in a plain white shirt, one young, one older with a rather more worn, world weary expression. They do little except occasionally brush back their hair or glance across at each other. They look uncomfortable. You can’t help feeling something has happened between them. Although never explicitly made clear, it seems as if the dance is a reflection of their memories.

It finishes without matters reaching a conclusion, although the long final duet is worth waiting for. Despite having danced for 85 minutes straight through the speed had not dropped one iota as their limbs cut and scythed through the space around each other. The audience quite rightly roared their approval.

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