Andy Warhol’s set for RainForest – a group of silver helium pillows, suspended in the air or floating free – started out as an art installation.
The choreographer Merce Cunningham saw it, loved it, and made it the scenery for this 1968 dance. Now it’s back in a gallery: pillows and dancers move among the exhibits of The Bride and the Bachelors, the Barbican’s exhibition on Marcel Duchamp and fellow artists. It’s a RainForest that is near enough to touch. You meet the dancers’ eyes, or bat the pillows away if they drift too close.
Cunningham, one of the 20th century’s most ground-breaking and influential choreographers, is a featured artist in the exhibition, with displays of stage designs and dances performed in the gallery. Rambert, which had close connections with Cunningham, made this guest appearance during the run, showing off its luscious revival of RainForest.
The shiny pillows suggest a jungle, while the dancers become wildlife. Miguel Altunaga moves with the velvety weight of a big cat, sinking into grand, strong poses. David Tudor’s music rattles and shakes, like an electronic translation of animal cries or falling rain.
Estela Merlos is a flowing, creeping thing, slithering about the floor or draping herself over the back of Mbuelo Ndabeni, who scuttles amazingly fast underneath her. Robin Gladwin stalks in like a wading bird, with a long, predatory gait and arms curved back like wings. He becomes something furrier as he nudges Merlos off Ndabeni’s back, nuzzling and butting at her with his head.
The animals aren’t literal. Moods and images come and go like ripples as the dancers move through virtuoso steps. Cunningham asks them to take up a pose, then hover inside it, shifting gently. Every muscle is worked in these breathing, sculptural shapes. In the gallery setting, you can see the tremble of working bodies and the Rambert dancers’ flowing strength. This close, they seem both more vulnerable and even more superhuman.
The superb Pieter Symonds, giving her farewell performance with Rambert, blasts through the dance. She’s a blaze of angry energy, whirling around the stage. Left alone, she steps proudly through the space, slow and commanding. Patricia Okenwa swings through high, bold kicks, her footwork fearlessly quick.
Around them, you can see other art works, including sets for other dances. Members of the audience lean in, or shift about for a better view. Chance and change are built into RainForest, not least because there’s no way of knowing where those pillows will go next. This time, a couple of them burst under the impact of strong kicks, then fell to the floor like silver leaves.
More dance performances on Thursdays and weekends until 9 June. Box office: 0845 120 7550