Picture the sketchbook for one of those teeming medieval paintings by Hieronymous Bosch, where people with tails ride winged fish or crawl, supple as maggots, through gargantuan fruits, and birds hatch from between the buttocks of priests.
Now imagine it scaled down, bowdlerised and brought to life by some surreal love child of Joan Miro and Hanna-Barbera, and you'll have a fair idea of the visual world occupied by Jorma Elo's new dance for Scottish Ballet.
Watching Kings 2 Ends is to be immersed in a riot of doodles. Every impulse, every line, comes with a scribble attached. A woman floating through the air in her partner's arms grows sudden frog's legs. Another, facing the audience as she is lifted vertically into the air, allows her head to wobble as she is lowered again, like a raindrop running down a window.
The Finnish-born Elo got his first training in Graham and Cunningham technique, but soon switched to classical dance when he joined the Finnish National Opera Ballet School. After dancing with Cullberg Ballet and Nederlands Dans Theater under Jiri Kylian, he moved to the States where he is now resident choreographer at Boston Ballet. He appears to be an acquisitive collector of less formal styles though, and one of the charms of Kings 2 Ends is the gurgling, childlike way he experiments with random accents and snatches of dance to develop a movement vocabulary that is polyglot almost to the point of incoherence.
Arabesques dart into tango-like ganchas, the outstretched leg hooking round a partner's body with a guilty start before returning to its blameless classical propriety. Chunks of the choreography look like someone trying to work out how to Vogue on a set of Ken and Barbie dolls. And one bizarre recurring trope has Sophie Martin bustling across stage like Fred Flintstone gamely trying to do Beyoncé's "Single Ladies" shuffle while trapped in a full-body cast.
At first glance the score is even more capricious than the movement, coupling Steve Reich's minimalist, rhythmically propulsive Double Sextet with Mozart's melodically profligate first Violin Concerto. But Elo binds them together, more or less, by showing each piece of music the choreographic image of the other. While Reich's two matched sextets of flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano and vibraphone intermesh and drive each other along, the dance is at its most random and sketchlike. Then, as Mozart scatters his dazzling tunes, the dancers turn into a kind of Heath Robinson perpetuum mobile, each a vital but eccentric gear in a mad machine.
One thing that Kings 2 Ends lacks is a sense of accumulating urgency. It doesn't really build to a climax, something that Kenneth MacMillan's Song of the Earth, the second offering on Scottish Ballet's double bill, does better than anything since The Rite of Spring. Indeed, watching this Song was to be struck by how many MacMillan ballets are variations on the Rite – studies, whether tender, angry or elegiac, of the remorseless process by which innocence is sacrificed.
In this case, though, the main female figure, danced here by Sophie Martin, makes her journey towards death on her own terms, as much a voyage of discovery as a fate to be dreaded. This was Martin's second starring role of the evening, and a marathon in its own right, but any fatigue took its place alongside the grief, terror, acceptance and growing sense of wonder she embodied – a richly felt response to both MacMillan's choreography and Mahler's farewell to the world. There can be no higher compliment than the conviction that MacMillan would have loved to work with her.
Song of the Earth is a new acquisition for Scottish Ballet, and some of the dancers will need time to come to terms with it. Martina Forioso's rictus in the third song, "Of Youth", is both persistent and, with the Messenger of Death merely standing in the background, premature. And the whole cast began as if embarrassed by the cod Orientalism of some of the poses. Adam Blyde's Messenger of Death, however, grew into the role even as we watched. So slight that he appeared Puckish at first, he quickly set the right tone of modesty and quiet compassion, and, as the Song unfolded, his relationship to those he came for evolved, from onlooker, to companion, to partner.
Surupa Sen, Bijayini Satpathy and Pavithra Reddy are from Nityagram, a village in Bangalore devoted to dance. For them Odissi, perhaps the most ancient surviving classical dance style, comes as naturally as breathing. Odissi was first performed by temple girls called devadasis, or handmaids of god, and watching Sriyah is to be transported back to a time when sensuality was both technically demanding and undeniably holy. Only the most shrivelled puritan would not be stirred by Sen, as cowgirl Radha, recalling how the god Krishna had satisfied her and begging him with semaphoring eyes and rippling fingers to return.
In the show's climax, Vibhakta, Sen and Satpathy celebrate the union of Shiva and his female principle, she in gold bracelets and flowers, he in snakes and a garland of skulls. There is something dizzying about the way their bodies communicate across a spectrum of effects, from rock-solid, bell-ankled stamps to the most evanescent incense-like curl of a finger. Even on a damp night on a musty stage in a theatre in Edinburgh, it was like waking up in a lost temple where the statues had come to life.
The Place in London opens its doors for 10 nights with Touch Wood. Differrent dancemakers, including Nigel Charnock and Vera Tussing, give a sneak peak at their current works-in-progress, all staged on a bare wooden floor. No two nights are the same, but all are likely to brim with exciting possibilities (to 9 Sep (020 7121 1100).Reuse content