mon 20/05/2019

Triptych, Rambert, Sadler's Wells | reviews, news & interviews

Triptych, Rambert, Sadler's Wells

Triptych, Rambert, Sadler's Wells

Great dancers in long programme of new work by Baldwin, Jeyasingh and Page

Charming as a quark: Vanessa Kang in Mark Baldwin's 'The Strange Charm of Mother Nature'© Hugo Glendinning

How long should a dance programme be? Opera and theatre habitués can be surprised by outings to contemporary dance, where the pieces might be shorter than the intervals, and a 7:30 start could see you comfortably on the 9:15 train home. But the early train is in no danger from Rambert’s new programme, their annual showcase of contemporary creations at Sadler’s Wells, which features one world première, one London première, and one revival from this time last year, and last night came in at a handsome two and a half hours.

Ashley Page, former Director of Scottish Ballet, is a good choreographer, but you wouldn’t guess it from 2013’s Subterrain. What was going on when this piece was conceived? It opens with a bombastic tableau of a man going down through a trapdoor, watched by a sinister figure in a floor-length greatcoat – Death? – and some vague electronic noises, I assume by Aphex Twin (the programme gives very minimal information about the pieces of music used in Subterrain). Then follows a section in this below-trapdoor world for five couples, set to a heavy-going chamber piece by Mark-Anthony Turnage, all fractured brass and screechy pips on the woodwind.

Kirill Burlov & Malgorzata Dzierzon in SubterrainThe first 30 seconds or so boast a blinder of a good sequence for Dane Hurst and Hannah Rudd, a Wayne McGregor-ish run of big extensions and low lunges through which these two fabulously gifted dancers float with silicon-oiled ease and dark, intense charisma. But the rest is noise: too many couples on stage doing their own thing to get any sense of choreographic purpose, underwhelming clothes (half the dancers have artistically slashed chiffon panels; a couple have tailored trousers, and some are in cotton skivvies, as if they turned up too late to put their costumes on), and lighting too low to see anything anyway.

The second section, a visually more restful sequence of duets, also boasts a much more restful accompaniment (Aphex Twin or Turnage? I wasn't clear) and a greenish painted backcloth that vaguely suggested plants. Fancifully, I wondered if Subterrain is about people living underground, and the first lot were supposed to be Nibelungs or dwarfs in a cacophonous mine, with this second section representing the elven gloom of Mirkwood. Or they could both be circles of hell, I suppose, stalked as they are by that mysterious great-coated figure, who also wears a utility kilt and – why? – a sleeveless, hooded faux-leather jerkin. Whatever it is, the excellent dancing of Hurst, Rudd and a few other dancers – Rambert do have great people – can’t compensate for the excessive length of this dreary scenario.

Kym Sojourna in The Strange Charm of Mother NatureThe second offering on the bill was a complete contrast in all but length. Mark Baldwin’s The Strange Charm of Mother Nature, here receiving its London première, is a perky and two-thirds delightful take on the movement of subatomic particles. In brightly coloured catsuits, Rambert’s dancers represent different “flavours” of quark (the particle, not the German curd cheese) and dance more or less energetically according to the habits of that “flavour” – signalled by the changing position and colour of the bright line projected on the backcloth. My science PhD companion, while sceptical about the anthropomorphic title, assured me the piece was a reasonable interpretation of the physics. 

During first two sections, set to Stravinsky’s Dumbarton Oaks and the Bach Brandenburg Concerto (No. 3) of which the former is a reconstitution (the link with atomic and subatomic physics is clear), Baldwin's new offering is everything you want from Ramber, and uplifting fun to boot. But it overstays its welcome: by the end of the third section, set to Cheryl Frances-Hoad’s not quite so uplifting Quark Dances, even the astonishingly fit Rambert dancers must be wiped out by all that relentless quarking, and the audience could do with a break as well.

The choreography on the whole has more space to breathe than in 'Subterrain', and becomes rather beautiful at times

Shobana Jeyasingh’s new piece, Terra Incognita, here on its very first outing, was badly served by coming last on this long bill. Titling the whole programme Triptych was no mere gesture on Rambert’s part, because this piece is strikingly similar to Subterrain in many ways – tedious music (by Gabriel Prokofiev) with insistent bass, scratchy strings, odd electronic noises, and the kind of choreography where lifts involve sticking your thigh in someone else’s armpit. But it has vastly superior lighting, by Lucy Carter, and design, by Jean-Marc Puissant – both distinguished ornamenters of dance productions. Kilts feature again, but in felicitous colours: plum for the boys, mustard for the girls, and topped with drapey button-front vests in a Farrow and Ball palette of mushroom and silver sand. The choreography on the whole has more space to breathe than in Subterrain, and becomes rather beautiful at times, especially in the rather haunting final section, danced in front of a gorgeous dawn-tinted cloudscape of a painted backcloth.

Rambert do a lot of things right – they have tremendous dancers, a live orchestra, put serious thought and effort into developing new work, and give extremely good value for a ticket in terms of minutes-per-pound. For my money though, this bill would have been a lot better at 30 minutes shorter, either by shaving 10 minutes off each piece, or dropping Subterrain altogether. Sometimes, good things really do come in small(er) packages.

  • See Triptych at Sadler's Wells until 22 November. Rambert are touring with a selection of these pieces in Scotland, Wales, Cornwall and Brighton until 28 March 2015.

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