Over the past few years, the choreographer Russell Maliphant has been quietly raising his profile. He's won several awards recently, and his male-male duets are central to the repertory of George Piper Dances, also known as the Ballet Boyz. A new work for the Boyz and Sylvie Guillem will be danced at Covent Garden later this year. At the QEH, he appeared with his own company as part of Dance Umbrella.
There's another male-male duet at the centre of Choice, the new quintet commissioned by Umbrella. It's a real advance on those earlier works. A duet like Torsion, made in 2002, had an air of workshop dance; the careful partnering was like those trust exercises where one partner takes the other's weight.
The lifts and balances are still there in Choice, but it's a much more articulate dance. The two men slide easily from solos to partnering, stepping away and turning back without losing momentum. Many of the steps are variations on a discus thrower's position: knees bent, torso twisted at the waist, straight arms ready to be flung wide. It's a flowing vocabulary of smooth turns and clean lines.
They never lose their composure and in Choice, the duet is followed by three women who sit down, torsos folded sideways so they can rest straight arms along the floor. They look like sphinxes, withdrawn and calm.
Maliphant's choreography is shaped by his own style as a dancer: he makes the long lines and lyrical steps that suit his own body. One Part II, a solo he made for himself last year, is danced to Glenn Gould recordings of Bach keyboard music. (The other works have ambient electronic scores.) It's choreographed against the music; when Maliphant's phrases happen to coincide with Bach's, there's a feeling of something tidily concluded.
All three pieces are softly lit by Michael Hulls, Maliphant's long-term collaborator. The most striking combination of light and motion comes in the female trio Two Times Three. Each woman stands in her own square patch of light and shade, lifting her arms with squared elbows, or swinging them in great circles. The lighting blurs movement as a camera might, leaving glowing, fading trails.
This is an evening of quiet virtues. As I heard my neighbour say to his friend, what's not to like? That isn't altogether a compliment. Maliphant doesn't provide much contrast or attack; his fluency can seem elegantly passive. At its best his style is cool and legible, but sometimes it dawdles.
In its 25th year, Dance Umbrella is stacking up celebrations: a gala, return visits from the stars of Umbrellas past. This programme has a group of long-term Umbrella associates trying out new work, returning to favourite pieces. They're the people who stay to chat at the end of the party.
The duet from Private Lives of Dancers is full of shared history. David Gordon has been making avant-garde dance and theatre pieces since the Sixties, recently staging a programme of postmodern dance for Mikhail Baryshnikov. Valda Setterfield, his wife, danced for Merce Cunningham and others. Nothing really happens in their duet, and it's wonderful.
Setterfield talks as they dismantle the zigzag of backstage clutter arranged on stage. She asks questions - "Did you sleep? Did you sleep well?". He doesn't volunteer anything, but the laconic answers tell you as much as her chatter. "We could have fish." "OK" (reluctant). "Or chicken." "Yes!"
It's the background hum of domestic routine, of people who have been together forever. She slept heavily, wonders if she snored. Pause. "Yes." Badly? They mustn't ever get divorced, she says, "I'd be shy about snoring in front of a stranger." It's unromantic, a jumble of habit and affection, and very funny. It's amplified by the walking duet that follows. When she stops, she stops like a ballerina, her eyes bringing the position into focus. He shuffles through his poses, getting the job done.
Sara Rudner appeared in the first Dance Umbrella. In Heartbeat, made in 1983, she's rigged up to a heart monitor, which amplifies her pulse and the noise of her working muscles. Her body becomes its own soundtrack when she dances to the beat of her own pulse.
Bird Song is a sneak preview, two solos from a new work by Siobhan Davies. The dance for Henry Montes makes his long, thin body look soft and unprotected. He stays apologetically curved, never stretching out, and convulsively shakes his belly and chest. He's followed by Deborah Saxon, who strikes out firmly, twisting her hips and shoulders. At this stage, both solos look unfocused.
Akram Khan, the youngest of these artists, wasn't actually there. If Not, Why Not is a film with live music, scratchy electric cello from Philip Sheppard. The film itself is jumpy, cutting from one dance or close-up to the next. It looks like a trailer, a promise of dances to be shown later. After 25 minutes, that gets wearing.
Richard Alston's 1990 Roughcut is dedicated to Val Bourne, the founder and still director of Dance Umbrella. It's a fast, fluid dance to a Steve Reich clarinet piece. Alston doesn't always sustain that musical-comedy effervescence. Sometimes the smiles and heel steps are a tidy way to end a phrase, more dutiful than free. Then the dance turns, a new phrase or a soloist, and it's spontaneous again. A celebration dance at last.Reuse content