Morphed – Tero Saarinen Company: Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London, 10 August 2017

Music Man

Hair-raisingly raising hair. Tero Saarinen Company in Morphed

The most striking thing about the Finnish Tero Saarinen Company’s Morphed was the extraordinarily clamorous music by Esa-Pekka Salonen. Slightly dissonant but heaving with mighty swellings of glorious noise, it was a series of three constantly surprising orchestral scores that weren’t going to let you ignore them. Would Saarinen’s choreography stand up against this tremendous aural assault?

Well, the first twenty minutes or so was quite brilliant. It started with all seven hooded male dancers sharply walking squares and diamonds of differing sizes to the tippling sound of a horn – it was mesmeric tracing the paths of how they kept narrowly missing each other. After a short while the first whack of Salonen’s Foreign Bodies kicked in and the dancers were set loose with big, expansive ensemble movements; suddenly we were in Pina Bausch Rite of Spring territory. The dancing was ferociously mobile but strictly organised and it worked fantastically with the music.

After that, however, Morphed started focusing in on individuals and small groups and somehow it lost momentum. There were still some wonderful moments – the excellent Ima Iduozee juiced out a sinewy solo and can bounce to heights like no man I’ve seen before, and all seven dancers rotating with joined hands was a hugely powerful image – but there was an awful lot of padding to wade through too. Like a surprisingly large amount of contemporary dance, an art-form that invariably claims subversiveness in its DNA, Morphed can’t resist a good cliché. Ferocious staring at the audience? Check. Someone walking very slowly across the back of the stage for no good reason? Check. Bare-chested man? Check, times seven.

Mikki Kunttu’s intriguing set was underused. It consisted of loads of pairs of ropes hanging from the flies across three sides of the stage. At one point they were all given a good shake to a particularly vigorous section of music, unsettling the watching mind and looking great in the process. Apart from that, however, they were generally used for the dancers to walk through and occasionally mould into crazy hairdos.

Even if it does run on way too long at one hour, there are plenty of original and interesting ideas in Morphed, as well as some terrific dancing. In the end, though, the music came out on top – not a big problem, really, as it sounds so darned good you don’t mind sitting through the duller bits at all.

Gerard Davis

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Romeo and Juliet – English National Ballet: Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London, 5 August 2017

We aren’t family

Hey Juliet, why do monks wear brown? It’s just a habit they get into. ENB’s Isaac Hernandez and Erina Takahashi in Nureyev’s Romeo and Juliet

Rudolf Nureyev’s Romeo and Juliet is forty years old now, which means it’s lasted more than twice Juliet’s life span. It’s English National Ballet’s very own production, the legendary Russian having created it at the behest of Dame Beryl Grey for the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977 (although our dear monarch clearly had better things to do than actually watch it – she sent her sister to the premiere instead).

While Ezio Frigerio’s traditional designs are clean and unfussy (with some stunning backcloths), Nureyev’s choreography is as busy as it comes. This Romeo and Juliet must have one of the highest steps per minute count of any ballet in the history of the art-form. At first this works very much to its advantage; the high tempo captures the energy of the enthusiastically warring families and also of the butterflies-stirring moments of first love.

Then comes the crucial ‘balcony pas de deux’ (or here, the ‘short flight of steps pas de deux’) and where you want the young lovers to communicate the depth of their passion through tender, yearning expressions that infect their entire bodies, instead you have faster and faster and relatively superficial balletic gestures. It’s a little disappointing to be honest but the rest of the ballet has so many things to recommend it that it almost seems churlish to point it out.

The guttural squabbling of the Montague and Capulet families are very effectively realised with a series of rude gestures and massive unruly brawls in which the women get as involved as the menfolk. The principal characters are given a great deal of humanity – Tybalt isn’t just a rudderless psychopath, for example, but a chap who’s affectionately close to, and highly protective of, his cousin Juliet. Likewise, Mercutio (who was brilliantly performed by Fernando Bufalá) is funny but bloody annoying and although my sympathies were with James Streeter’s manic Tybalt by the time of their confrontation, the way everyone takes the piss out of him when he’s dying is heartbreaking. Even the nurse has another, rather naughty, life going on.

Crucially, Juliet is given a lot of emotional turmoil to deal with. For her, the decision to run away with Romeo is not as simple as is usually made out in other productions; she agonises over whether suicide would actually be the best option after discovering it was Romeo who killed her beloved cousin. Funnily enough, the character we learn least about is Romeo himself; he just seems to be a romantic dreamer and it’s pretty much left at that.

To that end, Isaac Hernández played him very well. All floppy hair and doe-eyed intensity, Hernández was convincing as the naïve youth, and his classical technique and stamina was superb. Erina Takahashi was outstanding as Juliet. An attractive dancer with quick, neat steps, she caught her character’s progression from young girl to womanhood perfectly and was totally in tune with her confusion regarding family duty and personal desire. It was desperately sad to see her plans of escape unravel in such devastatingly cruel twists of fate.

Despite some unnecessary symbolism crowbarred in (the figure of death hovering behind Juliet while she contemplates suicide, for instance) and an overly-long build up to getting to the tomb (how many dances does Paris have to do before he opens the bloody curtain to find Juliet dead?), this is an intelligent and very enjoyable production. It was also excellently danced by English National Ballet who were wonderfully accompanied by their orchestra.

Nureyev’s Romeo and Juliet has finished at London’s Southbank for this season but it re-appears at the Bristol Hippodrome from 21 November 2017. Check the English National Ballet website for dates and tickets.

Gerard Davis

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Hoochie Koochie – Trajal Harrell: Barbican Art Gallery, The Barbican, London, 23 July 2017

London is voguing

Pouching Tiger, Hidden Rag On. A solo from Trajal Harrell’s Hoochie Koochie. Photo by Getty Images Europe

There’s a ballet by Alexander Ekman called Cacti that basically takes the piss out of critics trying to misguidedly pin meaning onto a choreographers intentions. I felt I was being sucked into the same trap with Trajal Harrell’s performance exhibition Hoochie Koochie at the Barbican Art Gallery in London.

Like many living choreographers Harrell talks (or writes) a good game. The white walls of the gallery are bedecked with literary paragraphs detailing context and inspiration, and they reference all the right names from the world of postmodern dance. As this is essentially a retrospective, that’s fair enough, you’d expect the equivalent if you went to a Duchamp exhibition.

Harrell’s primary focus is the world of voguing, a dance form that sprang out of the Harlem dance halls in the 1960s, and its relationship with the postmodern ideas of Judson Dance Theater who were simultaneously rejecting the existing practices and theory of Modern Dance. Although there are similarities between the two in the assertion that anyone can be a dancer, there are mostly huge contradictions, especially in the areas of glamour, camp and make-believe transformation. So many contradictions, in fact, that you wonder why Harrell continues to define his work against what Judson Dance Theater is not. It was 50 years ago, man, give it a rest.

The exhibition itself is cleverly laid out by giving each of the 14 works its own separate space. Sometimes just one performance is happening, at others, three or four across the gallery. It’s not a massive room, so everything’s easily accessible (sometimes you even find yourself accidentally walking into a performance) and the sound of a new piece of music is invariably the herald of another work starting elsewhere.

It’s the frenetic bursts of several things happening at once that are the most exciting; such as the rampant voguing of Let’s Get Sick scampering across the whole gallery while a statuesquely Grecian solo to P.J.Harvey hovers in one corner and the erotic tension of the yarn-linked The Untitled Still Life Collection unwinds in another.

Harell’s longer works don’t really survive his relatively limited choreographic expression – generally speaking, the ideas seem to be on the walls rather than in the movement – but the catwalk exuberance of In the Mood for Frankie was entertaining for a while. Hoochie Koochie is definitely something to take your brain along to, although whether that’s enough, I’m not sure.

Hoochie Koochie runs at the Barbican Art Gallery until 13 August 2017. It only opens from Thursdays to Sundays though, so it’s worth checking the opening times on the Barbican website.

Gerard Davis

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Tanguera: Sadler’s Wells, 21 July 2017

Fight night

Suits you Señora. Tanguera, photo by Stefan Malzkorn

Most tango shows designed for the theatre operate on a fairly abstract basis. There’s usually an element of sleazy love but essentially they’re a long line of episodic dance sequences with no connection to each other. When you get a good one, it’s a fantastic experience.

Tanguera has been rolling around the world now for 15 years and takes the unusual step of following a narrative. It tells the story of Giselle, a beautiful young French girl emigrating to Argentina in the early 20th century who, within one minute of setting foot on shore, falls in love with a docker and then inexplicably walks off with a pimp.

It’s quite interesting for half an hour or so, as choreographer Mora Godoy uses the more aggressive aspects of tango to explore male manipulation of women in the dark underworld of prostitution. As the story progresses though, the characters don’t develop – the baddies remain cliché-ridden baddies and the goodies are irreproachable. Giselle at the end of the story is the same naïve angel she was when she arrived, despite the extreme violence and deprivation she’s been subjected to.

This may not have mattered if the dancing had been allowed to breathe. The performers were excellent – quick fast feet and a tremendous glide to their steps – but every time a duet was beginning to flourish it was interrupted by yet another fight scene. There were also about ten too many slow-motion sequences highlighting something important happening. And the ending is botched – I remain unsure whether they died or not.

Still, Valeria Ambrosio’s staging looks good, the costumes are just what you want and the (mostly hidden) band are terrific. There’s also a decent singer playing a character on stage, but she seems a bit random to a non-Spanish speaker like me – maybe she’s relating events? There’s some very good dancing to see, especially in the encores, but the overwhelming feeling at the end was one of frustration about what might have been.

Tanguera runs at Sadler’s Wells until 6 August 2017 and tickets can be found on the Sadler’s Wells website.

Gerard Davis

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ETM: Double Down – Dorrance Dance: Sadler’s Wells, 12 July 2017

Down at heel

What a seven-strong Wii team looks like. Dorrance Dance in ETM: Double Down. Photo by Hayim Heron

In some ways, it’s hard to fault Dorrance Dance’s show ETM: Double Down. The achingly hip New York-based tap dance company have seven outstanding tap dancers that provide an inexhaustible supply of beats, rhythm and joie-de-vivre. They’re joined by a couple of excellent musicians and an ingenious method of using feet to provide further music.

Traditionally, street tap dancers (or hoofers) use wooden soundboards to amplify the sound of their shoes. Dorrance Dance have taken this a step (ho,ho) forward by building lots of small trigger boards wired up to electronic software; whenever these highly mobile trigger boards are stepped on, they create musical notes and sounds. This means that the score is frequently being created by the choreography, and vice versa.

It’s very clever and full of inventive methods of presenting the art form, and yet, and yet. This may be a personal thing but beyond the technical brilliance of the dancers there’s very little else going on. Tap doesn’t emote a great deal; there’s little variation in the noises shoes produce and the cold electronic sounds of the trigger boards seemed to underline that fact.

Also, the sections that did capture my imagination, like the sparring session with the timbales players and the line of trigger boards lined up to look and sound like a piano, were invariably cut short, whereas the many improvisatory solos meandered on for what felt like an eternity.

In choreographic terms, the more thought-out approach of the ensemble routines worked best. Bizarrely though, despite its unparalleled connection to the music, the choreography often didn’t work in tandem with it. When a singer was introduced in the second half, smooching out slow, soulful melodies, the dancers were still going hell for leather in front of him.

There was also a hip-hop dancer boosting the ranks but she didn’t add a great deal to proceedings, popping up every now and again to show how many times she could twist her waist in the wrong direction. In a way, she kind of embodied ETM: Double Down; too many ideas being thrown at it, with nothing fully developed.

That all said, plenty of people in the audience loved it, so maybe tap is just not for me. I’ve seen a few tap shows now and not really enjoyed any of them so perhaps I should just admit defeat and add it to my ‘tried but failed’ list, right after Riverdance and flamenco. Hmm, I can see a pattern developing there – is there a word for a fear of noisy feet? Tippytappyphobia or something?

Dorrance Dance’s ETM: Double Down runs at Sadler’s Wells until 15 July 2017. Tickets can be found on the Sadler’s Wells website.

Gerard Davis

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Coppelia – Birmingham Royal Ballet: Bristol Hippodrome, Bristol, England, 1 July 2017

All dolled up

Definitely worth booking. Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Coppelia.

Peter Wright’s production of Coppélia for Birmingham Royal Ballet is a fine looking thing. Peter Farmer’s scenery and costumes are extremely attractive and the whole thing is put together with a breezy cohesion. And when you have someone of the calibre of Céline Gittens gliding around on stage in the lead role, you’re really on to a good thing.

She’s a naturally elegant ballerina with a poise and grandeur that’s hard to resist. Swanilda’s no princess, however, so would Gittens be able to pick out her earthier qualities? Sure she could. She was whimsical, funny and extremely dangerous when throwing books around. The act II robotics weren’t a problem either; in short, she was a joy to watch.

She was aided very well by Tyrone Singleton as her beloved Franz. He grasped the knockabout humour with ease, was an exasperating flirt and his dancing was cheeky when required but otherwise strong and powerful. Together, he and Gittens have a seamless rapport and their grand pas was terrific.

The other main character, Dr Coppélius, is a tricky one to pull off; often sleazy and invariably unlovable. Somehow, through a gentler interpretation perhaps, Michael O’Hare managed to make him fairly sympathetic; a figure of loneliness rather than a manipulator of naivety.

The last act has no story to speak of but instead features the extravaganza of classical dancing that is the Festival of the Bell. It was all danced well but special mention goes to the long-limbed Yijing Zhang’s beautiful Prayer, William Bracewell’s very impressive Call to Arms, and the corps’ for the pretty arrangements that opened the act. Furthermore, the orchestra, freed from the confines of a pit and almost sitting in the front row, sounded great. It was a very enjoyable night.

Gerard Davis

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MC 14/22 & Emergence – Scottish Ballet: Sadler’s Wells, London, 10 June 2017

Corps blimey

Looked at from any angle, Crystal Pite’s Emergence is damned good

A double-bill of half-naked bodies. Angelin Preljocaj was the first to capitalise on the lack of budget for shirts, putting his 12 men in long black skirts instead. MC 14/22 (Ceci est mon corps) is a bruising piece, full of uncompromising aggression and fierce fighting. Oppression and abuse of power appear to be at the heart of things and it makes for a hard watch.

Weaker individuals are consistently singled out by others and subjected to painful-looking beatings – the violence is extremely convincing and brilliantly choreographed. There’s also an interestingly blurred line between sensuality and brutality, and the section where everyone freezes regularly into angry ‘Last Supper’-type tableaux is brilliantly done. Yet, despite all this, and despite a terrific performance from the entire cast, MC 14/22’s episodic structure and heartless soundscape creates a heavily disjointed and empty feeling. That may be deliberate but it meant it was difficult to want to engage.

Crystal Pite’s Emergence had just as animalistic a premise and was also encased in a strange sound world, but the extraordinarily relentless spectacle made it a far more gripping watch. Manufactured for 30-odd dancers, small groups scurry away from the ant-like mass, limbs crackle and twitch, bodies contort and derange themselves. Quite how or why this community of nervous beasties operate is never clear but a sense of impending menace hovers loosely around.

Unbelievably good when working with large ensembles, one of the secrets to Pite’s eye-boggling choreography appears to lie in her attention to detail. For instance, there’s a short section where a large part of the cast are lying spread-eagled on the floor, twitching their fingers to insect-like clicks; it’s not simply the volume of bodies that brings it alive but the way she makes your eyes run unwittingly from one figure’s fingers to another’s.

No-one captured the scowling energy of the piece quite like Sophie Martin in the prologue; it wasn’t just that she didn’t look human anymore, more that she just wasn’t human anymore.There’s a couple of softer, more balletic moments in Emergence (including a duet beautifully danced by Bethany Kingsley-Garner and Victor Zarallo), but they look oddly out of place. This is a work where the pointe shoe stabs the floor rather than floating across it. A great piece of dance.

Gerard Davis

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