Rambert Dance Company Continues Its Pioneering Role

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Sub, The Art of Touch, L’Après-midi d’un faune and What Wild Ecstasy: Soloists, Musicians and Company of Rambert Dance Company / Paul Hoskins (conductor). Sadler’s Wells, London, 16.5.2012. (JPr)

What Wild Ecstasy - photo credit: Bettina Strenske and Rambert Dance Co.

As it introduces itself in a mission statement, ‘Rambert, the national company for contemporary dance, is the most distinctive and most creative working in Britain today. Founded by Marie Rambert in 1926, the Company has sustained her pioneering commitment to choreography and developing artists.  Marie Rambert was heavily influenced by her work with Diaghilev, Stravinsky and the Ballet Russes. She stressed the value of collaboration between choreographer, composer and artist and we continue in that tradition, routinely commissioning composers and artists alongside new choreography.’

Showcasing this wonderfully talented company of dancers, this current mixed bill ultimately is one for connoisseurs of modern dance rather than for a wider audience. It fulfils these criteria absolutely without actually filling the majority of the seats of the Sadler’s Wells Theatre, based on the small numbers at the second of its five-day residency. After the near-capacity audiences recently at the same venue for Ballet Preljocaj’s new Snow White it must be difficult for Mark Baldwin – celebrating his tenth year as artistic director – and his company to stick to their principles or attempt something that might prove more popular in these straightened times, when people pick and choose carefully what they will come out to see. Nevertheless, in the summer of 2013 Rambert moves into a new permanent base for creating dance on London’s South Bank and this will be a landmark move.

To a degree, I suppose they attempted to court more popular appeal by matching the centenary of Nijinsky’s Ballet Russes L’Après-midi d’un faune with a new work, What Wild Ecstasy, choreographed by Mark Baldwin himself which aims to respond ‘to the original in a contemporary fashion.’ Hovering(!) over the stage and the 20 dancers who perform Baldwin’s steps and re-imagine ritualised dance in the context of a late-twentieth century rave (hence the ‘Ecstasy’ in the title)  are what I first thought were three giant wasps. While its overall frenzy and featured duets might indicate these are ‘mating rituals’ it never builds up to quite the orgasmic climax of the original Faune (which was performed immediately before it). I wondered whether it was perhaps a year too early as its more natural distant relative – in both dance and Gavin Higgins’s dissonant and percussive score – is Ballet Russes’ The Rite of Spring, but since that was premièred in 1913 it would have missed this year’s Cultural Olympiad. The vibrant colours of the eclectic costumes (all funky headgear and hot pants) and also the lighting hinted at Gaugin’s Fiji paintings and this association would not be a surprise since Mark Baldwin was born there. It all seemed to end a bit prematurely as a huge number of small plastic yellow balls – pollen – fall to the stage floor.   I now realised the omnipresent creatures were actually bees, but isn’t this yet another indicator of Spring?

It is believed that Marie Rambert saw the great Vaslav Nijinsky perform the title role in his L’Après-midi d’un faune about thirty times and she brought the work to her own company when she founded it in 1931. This was its 343rd performance and it is danced against a plainer background than Léon Bakst’s original famous backcloth – and it was perhaps all the better in this modern age. Dane Hurst as The Faun has youth on his side, while some of the recent interpreters of this part I have seen have not. This made his Faun’s quivering, languorous sexual attraction towards the Nymph more potent that in some recent revivals. However I found the dropping of her scarf a little contrived, though in this context perhaps it was intentionally so?

Opening the evening was Sub, choreographed by Itzik Galili to music by Michael Gordon and receiving its UK première. The Rambert Dance Company admirably likes to perform its music live but because Yaron Abulafia’s lighting cues were time coded to the recording of Gordon’s Weather One this was not possible. Seven male dancers are seen stripped to the waist and wearing elaborate skirts; they frenetically stamp and wheel their way through an over-extended feat of physical movement in groupings of various numbers. It all seems to have its origins in the Māori Haka. Was it was supposed to take its toll on the dancers and was the panting heard at the end genuine or is put on? In ant case Jonathan Goddard (in what I am lead to believe his final season with the Company) and Dane Hurst particularly caught the eye in this frantic work.

Lasting over 30 minutes Siobhan Davies’s 1995 The Art of Touch (revived by the Rambert Dance Company in 2010) is the mixed bill’s most substantial work. Carole Cerasi valiantly plays intricate harpsichord pieces by Matteo Fargion and Domenico Scarlatti and once again it involves seven dancers, this time both male and female. Fast movement was a feature of all three modern pieces on the programme but The Art of Touch had a greater musicality. This is not surprising since Davies was ‘intrigued by how a musician’s hand touches the keyboard and how the plectrum makes contact with the strings. The sense of touch became a trigger for making the work …’. Indeed it does contain a ‘touching’ (in both the word’s physical and affecting definitions) for Jonathan Goddard and Gemma Nixon, followed by an attention-grabbing solo by Pieter Symonds. It all ends with the dancers in a diagonal line across the stage. This may be too simplistic to think of as representing the keyboard … but it’s possible, I suppose?

Unknown to me before sitting in the theatre this was a ‘sign interpreted show’ with a sign language-interpreter, Angie Newman, on the side of the stage. I am glad that the very few hearing impaired people in the audience were able to get more from the performance this way. I just wonder how the mimicking of musical instruments could help those who may not have heard musical sounds before. In fact her gestures were so dance-like at times that I overheard a young person present saying ‘I thought she was one of the dancers at the beginning when she was miming playing the cello’!

Jim Pritchard

The Rambert Dance Company (www.rambert.org.uk) season ends on 19th May and for details about this and all future dance events at Sadler’s Wells visit http://www.sadlerswells.com/.