Primitive, thick-hewn dance shapes

Rambert Dance Company | Wycombe Swan, High Wycombe
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The Independent Culture

Mats Ek's She Was Black looked pretty weird when his Swedish home company, the Cullberg Ballet, showed it at the 1999 Edinburgh Festival. Now acquired by Rambert Dance Company - the first British troupe to take Ek on - it still looks weird. Characters scurry on and off inexplicably, their primitive, thick-hewn dance shapes like the contours of peasant woodcuts, their setting a surreal collection of architectural features; steps that lead nowhere, a purposeless platform, a table. It is the bold assertiveness of these images that make the piece, for all its mystery, so gripping.

Mats Ek's She Was Black looked pretty weird when his Swedish home company, the Cullberg Ballet, showed it at the 1999 Edinburgh Festival. Now acquired by Rambert Dance Company - the first British troupe to take Ek on - it still looks weird. Characters scurry on and off inexplicably, their primitive, thick-hewn dance shapes like the contours of peasant woodcuts, their setting a surreal collection of architectural features; steps that lead nowhere, a purposeless platform, a table. It is the bold assertiveness of these images that make the piece, for all its mystery, so gripping.

It helps that Gorecki's accompanying Second String Quartet is equally forceful: eerily suspended adagios alternate with fast passages where the chords cough in angry, choppy rhythms and invite staccato ensembles from the dancers. It also helps that Rambert performs with such whole-bodied commitment. Deirdre Chapman and Paul Liburd's opening duet makes a vivid impression, their clumsy postures and tortured sexual references speak of dark repressions. Ek sees his setting as an urban landscape, but I was reminded of those bleak Scandinavian films about backward, isolated communities without sun or joy. Liburd and Chapman's idea of fun is to play grating jokes, where Liburd blows his nose on Chapman's skirt and cackles wickedly or, leading her like a dog, her dress becomes a leash. Black comedy is - I hope - an important strand of this piece, bodies manipulated unceremoniously or popping and crawling unexpectedly out of hiding. And so is sheer dance energy as the individuals travel across the stage in great devouring runs and leaps and rolls.

Vincent Redmon's appearances are particularly strange, first naked in a brief demented solo before being dragged off, then returning as a sexually ambiguous individual, with man's clothes but red point shoes to balance on. Even stranger is the slug-shaped creature that wriggles into the piece half way through, slumped on the floor or unsuccessfully trying to crawl up the steps. Ek talks about how, in the end "the most rejected being, the human litter (junk), reveals its hidden potential". And the piece closes with this creature sloughing off its chrysalis-shroud, to emerge as a lone black figure, agilely swaying and bending to entirely different music - a Far Eastern "throat" song. The effect is so outrageous that you laugh, while Ek's message comes across with an exhilarating clarity.

The territory of Christopher Bruce's Sergeant Early's Dream for the second half seemed hyper-familiar by contrast. Set to Irish, British and American folk songs performed by the Sergeant Early Band, this is quintessential Bruce: dance that speaks to the soul, that is simply beautiful, that is accessible without being cheap. The harbour setting suggests the New World staring out over the sea to the Old. Bruce's choreography evokes the nostalgia of immigrants for the home they left behind and the cast communicate it wonderfully.

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