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Dance From Two Centuries:

Rambert Dance Company - Mixed Bill
Chunky Move - 'Mortal Engine'

by Stuart Sweeney

October 16, 2012 -- Sadler's Wells Theatre, London, UK and October 20, 2012 -- Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, UK

These two contrasting contemporary dance programmes, seen a few days apart, gave me the idea to review them together and see if any insights arise. Rambert Dance Company, the oldest in the UK, provided a triple bill with a short extra work. This is a common structure for Rambert, drawing on its rich history with works as far back as the 1930's, combined with several new commissions each year. Here, no less than three of the works are “new to the company” revivals of 20th C. works, combined with a new commission, which could easily have come from the same century.

In “Roses”, Paul Taylor set himself a demanding task: a 30-minute work consisting of an ensemble section for 5 couples, who never leave the stage, set to a Wagner's “Siegfried Idyll”, followed by an extended duet by a 6th couple to an adagio by Heinrich Baermann, flowing almost seamlessly after the Wagner. Choreographers often use exits and entrances, varying the numbers on-stage to provide a fresh field of view and focus. In “Roses”, Taylor explores how a dance-maker can retain the interest of the audience without such devices. The patterns he weaves have the spatial mastery of Balanchine, as the five couples seem to portray a single relationship full of romantic lyricism, mixing conventional movement with somersaults and other eye-catching steps. For the final pas de deux, Angela Towler and Kirill Burlov performed the steps with grace, but never quite caught the romanticism achieved in the ensemble section.

Like “Roses”, “Dutiful Ducks”dates from the 1980's. Choreographer, Richard Alston, had already used a text-sound composition by Charles Amirkhanian to great success in “Rainbow Bandit”. Here we get a dotty poem about ducks, playful repetitions, all making a delightful sound tapestry. Alston's choreography matches this with kinetic movement, abrupt changes of direction and even classical entrechats. Dane Hurst, arguably one of the best male dancers in the UK, made the work his own and should be able to dine out on this delicious morsel at festivals around the world.

“Sounddance” is a Merce Cunningham work from the 1970's - the programme tells us that the opening solo was originally danced by Cunningham himself. Given that his eponymous company is closed forever, groups like Rambert are keeping his work on-stage. It seems typical Merce to me with heads tilted to one side, difficult balances, petit jetée, and curved arms making semi-circles and ogives. In “Sounddance”, to David Tudor's near-white noise accompaniment, the 10 dancers appear and disappear through a gap in a curtained backdrop. There are lovely moments such as deer-like jumps and the Rambert dancers give it their all, but this work didn't resonant with me as for some of Cunningham's rep.

The London première of “Labyrinth of Love” was the big event of the Sadler's run. There are memorable aspects: the singing of Soprano Kirsty Hopkins as she interacts with the dancers; eye-catching, white costumes by Conor Murphy; a long counter at the back of the stage, often used for humorous effects and projected images of fires. What seemed notably missing was - love – not for one moment was I emotionally engaged by the work. The choreography had little to separate it from any number of other contemporary dance pieces and 8 men jumping one by one off the back of the counter transformed the stunning finale from MacMillan's “Requiem” into mere banality.

I saw Chunky Move's “Ghost” a few years ago at the Lublin Festival in Poland – a solo on an illuminated floor, with software generating a series of patterns and shapes initiated by the dancer's movement. I remember thinking, “If this is the 21st C. count me in!” Thus, I had great expectation when I read that choreographer, Gideon Obarzanek, was to bring a larger scale work based on the same technology to London. I was not disappointed.

In “Mortal Engines”, Freider Weiss's software also reacts to the music of Robin Fox, as well as the 6 dancers, generating scintillating images on a tilted stage. A solo dancer shows anguish and a jangling, electric pattern is thrown off with every movement. A couple sleep in an upright position, as part of the stage tilts to the vertical. As they roll around soft-edged shapes follow their path. The range of patterns is varied, sometimes vibrating ellipses sometimes black drops falling like rain. But throughout, the inventive choreography of the near naked bodies shows great physicality and always emphasises their humanity. Finally green lasers and smoke create tunnels and planes of light for a jaw-dropping climax. In the after show talk, Obarzanek told us that after making these two pieces in 2008, he moved away from a high-tech approach and now works with actors, alongside dancers, but he was very happy to see “Mortal Engines” again.

So, are there any links to be drawn between the two programmes? “Mortal Engine” with its dizzying visuals will stay in my mind much longer than the Rambert show. Perhaps the UK's oldest company could push the envelope a little more, alongside its celebration of 20th Century dance and be more risk-taking in its choice of current choreographers to provide audiences with the new possibilities that the 21st Century offers.

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