Artists and film folk have long been haunted by the work of Eadweard Muybridge, the enterprising Victorian photographer who set out to prove a point about a horse's gallop, and ended up inventing the zoopraxiscope, a key stage in the evolution of moving pictures.
So it was only a matter of time before a choreographer fell under its spell: all those curiously detached, blackish images of naked people in various stages of locomotion – "Man Walking at Regular Speed", "Woman Shifting Weight from One Leg to Another" ... These are the building blocks of contemporary dance.
Bring a Turner prize-winning artist into the mix, though, and nothing can be that simple. Undance is billed as a three-way collaboration between the choreographer Wayne McGregor, composer Mark-Anthony Turnage and artist Mark Wallinger, but it seems to be Wallinger who has called the shots, perhaps because he twigged that otherwise he would have little to do. His realistic wall-size paintings of the entrance gates to a United Nations compound, lining both sides of the stage, add nothing to the project beyond a sense of grasping at straws for contemporary relevance (it's the UN initials, Un-dance, geddit? – a programme note describes Wallinger's hope that we can un-do the wrongs we have inflicted around the world: it's as desperate as that).
Not content with the physiological pinpointings of Muybridge, Wallinger also drags in Isaac Newton and the sculptor Richard Serra, whose Verb List of 1967 consisted of more than 100 "doing words". Turnage's score is predicated on a selection of these: each of several movements for small orchestra plays with dualisms such as to dig/to twist, to slide/to fall, with results that are engrossingly varied and surprisingly lyrical, even pretty. Tim Murray conducts with verve and precision. It's music that could hold its own in any context.
As for the dance, you wonder that McGregor didn't object to Wallin-ger's bossy strictures – he even went so far as to issue them in a booklet. But the choreographer seems to have knuckled down, more or less, though you can't say the result is qualitatively different from anything he might have arrived at by himself.
In flesh-toned knickers and T-shirts, his elite company of 10 power through tightly synchronised routines based on Muybridge's prints: against a graph-paper grid they trot, skip, box and wrestle, while a filmed version of themselves goes through similar motions, a beat or so delayed, on a screen behind.
It's not long, though, before it all turns McGregorish, limbs presenting inside out, bottoms protruding, necks craning like a meerkat's. You soon lose track of the verbs this might represent, but with movement so densely textured and dazzlingly executed, who cares? An elegant duet clears the air in response to a spare duel between a violin and a cello. You are dimly aware of clever reversals of material, of kinetic palindromes. All this will yield more on a subsequent viewing (Sadler's Wells must surely schedule a longer run). But did we really need to know the complicated process?
Then it's back to familiar Muybridge territory, static striding figures magicked into lines out of nowhere, and a striking mock-up of the zoopraxiscope, as dancers circle the stage illuminated by strobe (Lucy Carter's lighting is imaginative throughout). Undance, despite its accompanying verbiage, makes for terrific watching and listening – an entirely positive experience, and not un-anything in any way.
This new work is preceded by Twice Through the Heart, Turnage's 1997 solo opera about the inner life of a woman imprisoned for killing her abusive husband. A superlative performance by mezzo Sarah Connolly lends nobility to what could otherwise be grisly. The vaunted 3D design effects, however, amount to little more than vapour trails in the shape of chairs and tables.
The recent unearthing of the very first theatre score by Kurt Weill was the spur for choreographer Aletta Collins and Magical Night this year's family show at Covent Garden's Linbury Studio. A boy and a girl fall asleep, and a fairy casts a spell that brings a host of toys to life for a night of fantastic adventures (Fri to 31 Dec).
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