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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Zero Point – Darren Johnston: Barbican Theatre, The Barbican, London, 26 May 2017

Lots blunt

Ah, there’s the point. Darren Johnston’s Zero Point. Photo by Taisuke Tsuru

An awful lot of preparation went into formulating Zero Point. British choreographer Darren Johnston initially developed the idea through a Research & Development project at the Barbican in 2014, then he took on a residency at the Museum of Art in Kochi and, while in Japan, also traversed the Shikoku Henro pilgrimage trail. The resulting performance apparently takes on board ideas as diverse as rebirth, quantum physics, the transcendental nature of passing time, the Japanese concept of ‘Ma’, symmetry and transient locations, Zen Buddhism, reinterpreting sacred spaces through digital technology, the transformation of physical space to create immersive environments, and so the list goes on.

The only thing that was readily apparent in the actual performance was the transformation of physical space. Johnston is also a visual artist and, based on this evidence, this is where his talent mainly rests. The division of the stage by lines of light was excellent, as were the projections that traced patterns everywhere; in particular, the electronic static beamed onto two dancers looked fantastic and gave off a mysterious sense of the blurred images of early television.

The actual choreographic content that lay behind it wasn’t great however. The list of Japanese dancers was of an astonishingly high quality (NDT, The Forsythe Company and The New National Theatre, Tokyo, were just some of the Companies represented in the nine-strong cast), but beyond a superb sense of controlled balance, they seemed underused. There was a lovely long uncurling solo for one of the ladies (everything was so dark it was impossible to distinguish who was who) and several other sequences started promisingly, but on the whole, the slow, reflective movement never got near the intended trance-like state – there was too much of a cold disconnect between performers and audience for that.

Tim Hecker’s music didn’t help much either. The drama of the opening organ chord was never recaptured and the squashy electronica that followed it had a tendency to billow up into over-portentous melodrama.

It felt like Zero Point would have worked better in an art gallery space, an environment where you’re free to move around, dip in and out of things, and select your own viewpoints. On stage it seemed to get lost in its own baffling concept and relied too heavily on its audience to give it meaning. It was an interesting try though.

Zero Point runs at The Barbican Theatre in London until 27 May 2017 and tickets can be found on the Barbican website.

Gerard Davis

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Emerging Dancer 2017 – English National Ballet: Sadler’s Wells, London, 25 May 2017

It’s an emerge and see

Ladies and gentlemen, we have a winners. Rina Kanehara and Aitor Arrieta are two for the price of one.

Although English National Ballet’s Emerging Dancer 2017 contest ended in a tie between Rina Kanehara and Aitor Arrieta, it wasn’t actually that big a surprise as there was very little to choose between any of the six finalists. Some of them showed better in the classical and some in the contemporary but none shone in both – I’d have found it almost impossible to pick a winner, although I broadly agreed with the judge’s decision.

For me, the Classical pas de deux part of the programme won it for Kanehara and Arrieta. The opening pair of Isabelle Brouwers and Emilio Pavan looked more accomplished in their performance of the Paquita pas de deux, especially regarding Pavan’s partnering, but Kanehara and Arrieta had more zing in their dancing. Despite a bit of over-enthusiasm at times, they showed glimpses of raw potential in their more adventurous approach – Kanehara was a particularly exciting tambourine-tapping Esmeralda.

Madison Keesler and Guilherme Menezes were kind of hamstrung by having to dance the pas de deux from La Sylphide. Bournonville’s more subtle style made it hard to compete with the flashy bravura fireworks of the other two pas de deux on display. If Menezes had been able to show off some big lifts and other party tricks, then he would surely have won the competition because his contemporary solo was head and shoulders above the rest.

Sebastian Kloborg’s Flight Mode was a witty little number concerning a RyanAir flight attendant acting out the on-board safety instructions. Menezes’ dancing was sharp and precise and his expressive comic timing was brilliant. The other five contemporary works were much of a muchness really, although Emilio Pavan showed some excellent balance in Kirill Burlov’s Proprioception and Kanehara some marvellously swift changes of momentum and deft placement of body weight in Raimondo Rebeck’s Blind Dreams.

For further entertainment, last year’s winner Cesar Corrales came out after the interval and knocked out a ‘bring-the -house-down’ Don Quixote pas de deux with an impressive Katja Khaniukova. Then the Award-winners for 2017 were announced by Tamara Rojo in frock of the night (a resplendent 1950s-style shiny gold flared skirted extravaganza). Clearly neither Sarah Kundi (Corps de Ballet Award) or Georgia Bould (People’s Choice Award) knew they were going to win – Kundi was on the verge of tears as she gave an impromptu speech and the delightfully astonished-looking Bould simply announced she was ‘overwhelmed and confused’ and handed the microphone back to Rojo.

Kanehara and Arrieta both looked rightly happy with their victory – it’ll be interesting to see how they develop in the Company from here. If you fancy what they look like right now, you can watch the whole of the Emerging Dancer 2017 competition by clicking on this link which will take you to the live stream of the whole event, something I highly recommend.

Gerard Davis

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Casanova – Northern Ballet: Sadler’s Wells, London, 9 May 2017

New house, as they almost say in Italy

I said whimper, not wimple. Northern Ballet’s Casanova could do with a heads-up.

When will I be able to watch a new story ballet without having to read the synopsis first in order to understand it? There’s no question that a full-length narrative without words is tricky, and Northern Ballet’s Casanova was also Kenneth Tindall’s first attempt, but even so, there were some frustratingly essential markers completely missing. What was the importance of the red book that got Casanova and others imprisoned and tortured? What was the big bunch of papers that Casanova so clearly treasured in the second half? Who was the woman dressed as a man who it looked like he might have fallen in love with? Why did a nun seduce him and why was a priest watching from behind a door?

There were many such questions in a ballet overflowing with people, and I’m not going to harp on about it, but the net result is that it was difficult to care about any of them – why should you when you don’t know who they are or why they’re doing anything? The synopsis should be there to enhance what you’re watching, not to be absolutely crucial reading before the curtain goes up.

Enough moaning; there was still plenty to admire in this work. There was some lovely choreography that generally kept things interesting; the bandage-unravelling pas de deux between Casanova and Bellino was particularly good and packed with emotion. Tindall is also very good at seduction scenes; the alluring fluidity of Abigail Prudames and Minju Kang’s Savorgnan sisters was a case in point.

Although he lacked the personal magnetism that the real-life lover-boy must have had, Giuliano Contadini was a hard-working Casanova and made an excellent partner for the many women that passed through his hands. Unfortunately, these women’s appearances were generally so fleeting that they didn’t have much chance to make a big impact; the most successful was undoubtedly Dreda Blow, whose coyly understated portrayal of Bellino made her stand out from the debauched crowd.

Christopher Oram’s opulent staging was both practical and fabulous and his stylised 18th century costumes were magnificent. Alastair West’s lighting was almost like a rock concert at times but somehow managed to evoke a superb sense of time and place, unlike Kerry Muzzey’s specially commissioned film-like score which, especially in the first half, paid little attention to what was happening on stage. Overall though, this was by no means a bad ballet, it was just annoyingly difficult to fall in love with. Which isn’t like Casanova at all.

Northern Ballet’s Casanova runs at Sadler’s Wells until 13 May 2017 and tickets can be found on the Sadler’s Wells website.

Gerard Davis

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The Toad Knew – James Thierrée / Compagnie du Hanneton: Sadler’s Wells, London, 3 May 2017

Wind but no willows

Eye as a kite. James Thierree/Compagnie du Hanneton’s The Toad Knew

There are lots of good things in James Thierrée / Compagnie du Hanneton’s delirious The Toad Knew, yet, despite an excellent cast and some great visuals, it somehow struggles to maintain interest levels.

Set in a steampunk laboratory type-place, all sorts of weird contraptions lurk in the furthest reaches; on one side is a self-playing piano that communicates angrily with humans, on the other a luminous pool of water and from the ceiling an enormous upside-down metal lotus flower that harbours some kind of fairy and which swivels about in every direction. There’s also a self-unfolding circular ladder, a skeletal cherry-picker, a small statue of a lion and lots of props that disappear from view as quickly as they arrive. Surrounded by swathes of gothic drapes it’s all wonderful to look at and you never quite know what something is capable of.

Amid all the mechanical marvels an ungainly team of six wander un-methodically about, obeying irrational rules of etiquette and often getting physically stuck to each other. Everything is (deliberately) a bit skew-iff and claustophobically irritating – the closest analogy I can think of is when you’re a kid on a long car journey and your older sibling keeps jabbing you in the arm with their finger.

James Thierrée is a master of mime and his routines, first with a violin he can’t let go of and then with various characters he gets equally attached to, are funny, annoying and very clever. He also has a mesmerising way of moving at times, switching from robotics to slow-mo in the blink of an eye. His physical conversations with the dynamic judders of Sonia Bel Hadj Brahim are fascinating and he fits well as the cog that everyone else revolves around.

There are some marvellous set-pieces; the plate fiasco was terrific, the way the lotus flower thing followed the dancing fairy like it was an eye was delightfully creepy and the giant dragon/fish that invades the stage at the end was beautiful.

But, despite all of the above, the show sagged badly. There were far too many drawn-out periods of inactivity and the surreal world so successfully created also proved problematic in that it wasn’t filled with anything resembling a narrative (emotional or otherwise) or any kind of subliminal momentum to keep us hanging on to. We were left with episodic sketches that invariably petered out into nothing leaving us wondering what it was all for. The toad knows, apparently, so next time I’ll get him to write the review.

The Toad Knows continues at Sadler’s Wells until 7 May 2017. The Sadler’s Wells website has tickets.

Gerard Davis

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The Happiness Project – Didy Veldman’s Umanoove: The Place, London, 2 May 2017

It’s a warm gun

Not at all sheet. Umanoove’s The Happiness Project. Photo by Richard Haughton

Didy Veldman is an ex-Rambert dancer who’s been successfully choreographing freelance around the world for many years now. Getting a bit brassed off with all the travelling involved, she decided to set up her own company in the UK a year or so ago and called it Umanoove. The Happiness Project is the first fruit borne of her new initiative and, as the title suggests, it’s an exploration of what makes people happy, or otherwise.

It’s not perfect by any means. It has a tendency to drift in and out of focus, Alexander Balanescu’s violin score is a bit on the pedestrian side (as is his physical role in the action) and, at 70 minutes with no interval, it feels very long. There is, however, plenty to make up for these shortcomings, not least of which is the quality of the dancing.

The cast of four were excellent, each with distinct, believable personalities. Madeleine Jonsson was at her best when drifting hazily around in her own lost world of happiness deficit. Estela Merlos could definitely have been used more, as her superb duet with a glass of water demonstrated. Mathieu Geffré was a decent dancer but an even better comedian – his proclamations of ecstasy upon receiving various designer clothes were beautifully judged.

The standout display, though, came from Dane Hurst. Straight from the off he showed what a phenomenal performer he is; he has terrific control over his body and an outstanding ability to shift body weight and balance. He’s that rare performer who can make his body speak all of its own and he was utilised brilliantly here.

Just as importantly, Veldman gave them all plenty of inventive choreography to get their teeth into. Highlights included Hurst’s smile-chasing solo at the beginning, a trio full of fabulous lifts for Hurst, Geffré and Merlos, and a quartet for the entire cast that was dripping with an erotic yearning for strawberries.

In the end, the piece drew no apparent conclusions regarding its subject matter but I left happy enough.

The Happiness Project continues at The Place in London until 3 May 2017 and then moves to Bournemouth. Didy Veldman’s website has more information and a video clip.

Gerard Davis

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The Legend of Mulan – Hong Kong Dance Company: Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London, 15 April 2017

Like father, like daughter

This was my favourite part of Hong Kong Dance Company’s The Legend of Mulan. Watching it could be quite armful, mind.

For Hong Kong Dance Company’s The Legend of Mulan, we were promised a mix of contemporary, ballet, Chinese Classical dance and martial arts and that’s exactly what we got. Unfortunately, we also received large doses of repetitiveness, empty posturing and narrative bafflement. A level beyond all that was possibly the worst music I’ve ever heard set to a dance piece – a hideously synthesised movie-style epic more conducive to ordering Special Fried Rice at the local Chinese restaurant than being a vital ingredient in an internationally touring show.

The story of Mulan is a classic of Chinese culture but here it seemed to boil down to a woman joining the army, feeling sad because she left her Dad at home and then participating in a long, long war that involved the army fighting an invisible adversary. The entire second half consisted of her feeling a bit homesick and then arriving back home, whereupon a petal shower took place.

Often simple stories work best with dance but here Yang Yuntao simply provided no choreographic emotion with which to fill the gaps between narrative yardsticks. Instead there was an endless series of heroic tableaux and a tiring array of acrobatic leaps and extensions whose main duty appeared to be that of filling time.

It wasn’t all bad, of course. The dancers themselves were decent; the men took on their acrobatics with relish and there was a lovely scene with some white-robed women working looms (I think they might have been friends or servants of Mulan, it was difficult to tell). Best of all was the lady playing Mulan herself, Pan Lingjuan. Incredibly versatile, she skipped through the various strands of choreography without missing a beat, could twirl a staff like a helicopter and didn’t knock out six ‘o’ clock extensions so much as ten past six extensions. Her closing, classical Chinese solo was the closest things got to a genuine outpouring of feeling and showed off her exquisite arms and fingers to boot.

I can’t deny it was a disappointing show but I really hope the dancers are given the opportunity to come back and perform in London again. The Company has been in existence since 1981 so they must have better repertoire up their sleeves.

Gerard Davis

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