The programme's mention of Chekhov is slightly mischievous, since what the work first shows is an archetypal, close-knit European community - a group of people who are both secure and stifled in their tight proximity. Dressed in overcoats, their manners grave and slow, six dancers and two singers move through measured social encounters. Their gestures convey familiar rituals of boredom, flirtation and yearning, and the piece charts their passage as the bonds between them start to break.
The need to breathe a different air takes them on board ship, where they suffer a profound emotional sea- change and land, gasping, in the bright-lit frenzy of New York. This is the story of thousands of American immigrants during the last century, and the director Antony McDonald gives it a kind of mythic charge. Everything in the work makes you recognise the shape and rhythm and universality of the story, but nothing is stated literally.
The movement, choreographed by Ian Spink, Ashley Page and Eyal Rubin frees the characters from their inherited gestures into articulate, abrasive and sometimes reckless dance. Their early speech is Russian and French. Later it becomes fragments of American English, heard as part of a babble where words are used as weapons rather than social glue.
Orlando Gough's music is equally rich in plangent Eastern European melody, but in its outbreaks of brutal rhythm and jolting dissonance you feel the frustrated emotion and scent of fear. McDonald's set rearranges itself to accommodate a Russian drawing room, a ship's hospital, an immigration waiting room and New York City. And within all of this the cast pace themselves immaculately to show the disintegration of their old habit-formed selves and the emergence of the new - some more vigorous, others close to falling apart and somehow rather small.
The intelligence of their performances goes beyond individual skill to the creation of a collective poetry. Lynn Seymour as Irina, the ageing actress, dances beautifully and acts with a passionate, flaky presence. But she is matched in craft and maturity by everyone else. Escape at Sea is not only ambitious and haunting, it is easily the most grown-up piece of dance theatre to have appeared on the British stage in months.
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