Morphoses: The Wheeldon Company, Sadler's Wells, London
Shobana Jeyasingh Dance Company, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London
James Thiérrée, Barbican Theatre, London
Dancers give up their holidays to join the troupe run by Christopher Wheeldon. Not all the work merits it
Sunday 25 October 2009
They say "tomayto"; we say "tomahto". They respond positively to smooth PR; our hackles rise at the same sales talk. They like to believe ballet dancers live the life of a Ralph Lauren photoshoot; we're reassured to see ours at work in holey tights.
On launching the world's first cross-Atlantic ballet company three years ago, choreographer Christopher Wheeldon gave himself an ongoing dilemma: to see if there is a way of appealing to the specialised tastes of London and New York with the same live performance/dance film package. He hasn't discovered it yet, and at the moment, to judge by the opening night of his company's short residency at Sadler's Wells, the Big Apple is getting the upper hand. That's where the money is, presumably.
The mixed bill from Morphoses opens with a well-mannered spiel that would cause the breast of Mrs Wheeldon of Yeovil to swell with pride, as the director thanks the venue for having him and wishes everyone a wonderful time. He might just as well let his choreography speak for itself, for it is a fine thing, certainly the finest of the evening. Commedia, a contemporary take on the commedia dell'arte theme of Stravinsky's Pulcinella Suite (a score commissioned by Diaghilev for the Ballets Russes, whose centenary year this is), looks massively more assured than it did at the Wells last year. Svelte in harlequin unitards, Wheeldon's dancers are of the racehorse breed: perfectly proportioned, impeccably lean, beautifully trained. It says much about the choreographer's status that such artists gave up their summer break to work with him (a process we glimpse, briefly, in an arty film showing rehearsals at a sunlit Martha's Vineyard mansion).
Stravinsky's Pulcinella is an odd hybrid, part curlicued Baroque manners, part 20th-century raspberry-blowing, and that vigorous conflict is perfectly caught in the playing of the band under Paul Murphy. If some of Wheeldon's choreography looks polite, it eventually hits its stride in a cheeky, butt-waggling solo for a pointy-hatted Punch, followed by a sublimely amorous duet. Wheeldon's old Royal Ballet pals Ed Watson and Leanne Benjamin are perfect here; despite the age gap (he's in his thirties, she's 44-going-on-15), they have a gorgeously easy rapport, and as their flirtation climaxes in a full-on, lingering kiss, sustained as Benjamin travels in pirouettes of tiny fluttering steps, your own heartbeat responds in kind.
Too bad the rest of the evening fell short of this bracing start. Alexei Ratmansky's Boléro promised much, lining up three boys and three girls like competitive skaters in numbered vests. (Quite likely the ex-Bolshoi director was referencing the old Torvill and Dean routine, which briefly made Ravel's industrialist score the world's top classical pop.) Alas, that propulsive crescendo, with its increasingly rude trombones, does not correspond with what we see: a youthful mixing and matching of couples and single-sex groups, like a rehearsal for a college cheerleading team: clean fun, but ultimately bland.
The other two pieces on the bill should, frankly, be binned if Wheeldon wants a future for his company in Britain. The perfumed Leaving Songs, is, according to its Australian maker Tim Harbour, who speaks on the preceding film, about how life ends in death and then, erm, starts again. Bare-chested boys in blue carry girls in baby pink, they all hug balloons that resemble giant tears, while the orchestra's string section sobs in sympathy. Only marginally less vacuous is Softly As I Leave You, a duet for an inexplicably tortured couple and a plywood box by Paul Lightfoot and Sol Leon. Oh the beauty, oh the suffering, but oh the tedious emotional cliché. It left me longing for a few rough edges.
Shobana Jeyasingh is good on grit. Which isn't to say that her work lacks polish – far from it – but that her interest lies in the cracks and joins of our racially mixed society, and the tricky cultural compromises that arise from them.
For the past two decades she has introduced elements of bharata natyam into contemporary dance forms. Bruise Blood, presented by Dance Umbrella, is the latest outcome, and takes its cue from a spoken phrase uttered by a young African-American falsely accused of murder in Harlem in the 1960s.
The composer Steve Reich used this emotive snippet as the basis of a score, and Jeyasingh has taken up the baton, employing the composer Glyn Perrin and beat-boxer Schlomo to sample it further, creating a highly charged aural environment for dance.
So far, so fascinating. But in the event the exertions of Jeyasingh's dancers were out-funked by the on-stage techie hunched over the hand-held mic. Great idea to earn street cred with an act that appeared at Glastonbury. Not so great when the teenage audience's screams for Schlomo obliterate all else.
Faultline, an older work, taps into the zeitgeist more profoundly. Inspired by the novel Londonstani, Jeyasingh fashions a gripping picture of disaffected youth and cultural integration using gestures that mirror the mix of Punjabi, text and and street slang found in the book. Fleetly, dazzlingly executed, disturbing in what it tells you about another, shadowier, Britain, Faultline is testament to the sterling value of Jeyasingh's ongoing project.
And so to the word-of-mouth hit Raoul, the one-man-show from an artist impossible to pigeonhole, James Thiérrée, a true grandson of Charlie Chaplin in his physical comedy, yet with a melancholic bent that tips it into murkier philosophic territory. Raoul is a man in search of his true self, but when he finds that self warming its toes in his own armchair, an existentialist crisis ensues. Vaudeville skits are spun into an absorbing yarn. Ever imagined a man both riding a horse and being the horse? Thought not.
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