Rambert Dance Company, Sadler's Wells, London

Dance to Keats? This is how it goes...
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Mixed bills rarely possess such neat historical symmetry as the triple-whammy on Rambert's current tour. While A Steel Garden brings Christopher Bruce back into the fold three years after he left Rambert as its boss, Curious Conscience is Rafael Bonachela's parting gift to the company after three years as associate choreographer. There's also a reprise of Swamp, an ensemble piece created by Michael Clark almost 20 years ago to mark the 60th birthday of the company that gave him a berth at the start of his career. All three reap rewards from a company whose technical powers are riding a dazzling high.

The chief surprise is Bonachela's choice of music. Until now the Spanish-born choreographer has allied his hyper-energetic style to thudding pop scores or grungy electronics, cultivating a sideline as Kylie's dance-man on the back of it. But for this, his most ambitious piece for Rambert, he turns to the deeply English sensibility of Benjamin Britten and his Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, a setting of poems by Tennyson, Keats, Blake and co. This is an onerous undertaking, given the texts' hallowed status and the authoritative account of tenor Peter Van Hulle and the London Musici. Yet Bonachela, rather than subdue his signature spiky moves to the poems' shadowy grandeur, issues a visceral challenge to their various utterances on sleep, decay and death. It's as if he refuses to believe them. As the music plaintively echoes Tennyson's "dying, dying, dying", the dancers step up the pace of their gymnastic encounters, the men grappling their partners into ever more extreme split-leg positions, denying the inevitable with a furious life force, flinging themselves at the sky.

Much of the time this opposition tactic is effective, helped by designers Alan Macdonald and Lee Curran's beautifully calibrated control of darkness on stage. Pinprick lights suggest guttering candles, or blaze briefly and blindingly as the "curious conscience" of Keats' sonnet "To Sleep". The down side is that the choreography's frenetic busy-ness makes it hard to concentrate on either the words or the music.

I'm not sure I ever want to hear David C Heath's score for A Steel Garden again, but I liked his idea - or rather his and Christopher Bruce's idea - of having the eight dancers generate some of the music themselves. The stage is hung about with racks of tubular chimes and gongs that the dancers lurch or spin into, or hit with sticks as if by accident. Dreamily controlled martial-arts movements flavour the steps, and the general air is of an opium den mocked up for a Bond movie. It only wanted joss sticks to complete the full sensory experience. Yet the work pales before the structural integrity of Michael Clark's Swamp, a piece made, again, for just eight dancers, but whose masterly composition creates the impression of twice that number. What's more, thanks to the work's intensely idiosyncratic style and the taut classical skills of Rambert's dancers, you imagine you see Clark's most lithe and beautiful self in every move.

Edinburgh Festival Theatre (0131 529 6000) Wed to Fri; Theatre Royal, Plymouth (01752 267222) 30 Nov to 3 Dec