Dance: 80th Birthday Programme, Rambert Dance Company, Sadler's Wells Theatre, London

The vixen beneath the skin
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The Independent Culture

Recreating a lost ballet from Rambert's past looked like a neat move on the part of director Mark Baldwin. What better way to pay tribute to an 80-year heritage while celebrating the company's bent for invention? Little trace remains of the original Lady Into Fox in 1939 by Andree Howard - just a few minutes of silent film, since the steps were never noted down. It's the scenario that clinches it. A young woman, perhaps recently married, turns into a vixen and longs to make a break for the wild. Her husband - master of the local hunt - looks on, bewilderment turning to alarm. The wife bolts. He fails to protect her. The hounds have her for supper.

It's an allegory, of course, about the stifling state of marriage. But dance no longer deals in narrative of this sort, still less allegory so oblique, and recapturing its spirit is like trying to get spilt perfume back in the bottle. Baldwin has added swathes of new choreography and ordered smart new sets and costumes. A new orchestral score by Benjamin Pope provides romping tunes and pace. But at Tuesday's premiere the seams of old and new were showing, and the whole was not as good as its parts.

Perhaps significantly, the stronger sections are the new ones, as Baldwin sends waves of dancers hallooing over hedges and ditches, crisply elegant in rustling grey silk, suggesting both rider and steed. Less convincing is his pack of hounds, whose movements are so undoggy that I began to wonder if they were meant to be something else.

Athletics are what today's dancers are best at: cleanly characterised movement that doesn't ask too much of the soul. The crux of this 30-minute ballet, where Pieter Symonds's transfigured wife reveals herself to her mate (Simon Cooper), slithers about in emotional mud, and for long minutes at a stretch we haven't a clue what's going on. Once hubby has clocked that his once-fashionable spouse now wears a long bushy tail, does he feel a) faint, b) guilty or c) randy? Tick all of the above, or none, as you feel inclined. Again, outward animal detail is sharply etched - the way Symonds rises onto her toes and moves in dainty trotting starts, or lowers her nose over her limbs in repose - but the state of her mind is dim.

Perhaps we have lost the knack of sifting emotional clues, or become numbed by the naturalism of films (which would certainly have effected the bestial transformation less clunkily than having the character simply wriggle out of her dress). We will never know whether the 1939 Lady Into Fox might have spoken to us any more cogently, but it strikes me that this mostly admirable reconstruction should be treated as work in progress.

Stand and Stare, the other substantial piece in this birthday programme, is inspired by the painter L S Lowry and had its first performance a couple of months ago in the Salford theatre that bears his name. Rather than be obvious and replicate Lowry's familiar smoke-stack scenes, Darshan Singh Bhuller transmutes the feeling of the pictures into lines of bouncy movement from all 19 dancers. Designer Craig Givens's mobile fabric panels from which a brushy image of the artist's face peers down have a disquieting omnipresence, while Bartók's Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion supplies fabulous rhythmic impetus, if about 10 minutes more than is needed. In my experience, it's increasingly common for a choreographer's ideas to be outrun by his chosen music, but in the case of Bhuller vs Bartok there was never any contest to begin with. Happily, the London Musici, playing live in the pit, give a terrifically virile account, so one is content for the dance to time itself out while the score works its spikey logic to the last.

Acting as an appetiser on this mixed bill are two short, sharpish works by Rambert members. Verge is memorable chiefly for its covetable Roland Mouret evening frocks (designs, alas, that won't be available in Gap) and an unappealing score made from the sounds of dancers' breathing. Its fidgety, chair-bound choreography by Cameron McMillan seems to have been inspired by watching people nervously await some kind of ordeal. Divine Influence, a playfully extreme duet by Martin Joyce, attempts to match the muscular verve of the presto of a Beethoven piano sonata, and damn well almost does.

jenny.gilbert@independent.co.uk

* The programme returns to tour in Spring 2007

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