Rambert Dance Company, Sadler's Wells Theatre, London

Brown study in choreographic brilliance

Nadine Meisner
Thursday 15 November 2001 01:00

Even including the much-praised Biped, which came to London last year, Ground Level Overlay is the best piece by Merce Cunningham I've seen in a long while. It was made in 1995, when Cunningham was 75 years old. It shows that America's great experimenter has lost none of his touch and Rambert Dance Company, performing it for the first time, was clever to have acquired it for its 75th anniversary season.

As soon as the curtain rises, the stage picture (designed by Leonardo Drew) is arresting, a mass of what might be tangled vegetation, brown and fossilised, hanging at the back. The dancers also wear brown, but any danger of monochrome drabness is swept away by the gleaming inventiveness of the choreography, in which stillness contrasts with agitation. Groups and individuals enter and exit, each one with a distinctive nature, each one weirder than the one before. A woman stands alone barely moving, except for her arms, apparently impervious to the irritating new arrivals buzzing round her with small, busy steps. Her face is turned upwards, her arms and hands spread out in votive gestures picked up by others in their different ways. Some are collective beings who visit briefly in flickering shoals, or close the piece as a unison ensemble of couples engaged in a dislocated samba. We might have shifted into a parallel dimension, where the inhabitants go about their incomprehensible but purposeful activities, the various sub-species sometimes connecting, sometimes just coexisting.

Even stranger is the couple who make careful, manoeuvring adjustments to their slotted geometries and leave with a chain of small hopping circles, their combined limbs extended like helicopter blades. Or the woman who stands stock still on one leg for an eternity, before being lifted by a cluster of men and gently swung from side to side as if floating. There is occasionally a similar underwater quality elsewhere, which links Cunningham's inspiration to Stuart Dempster's accompanying trombone reverberations and fanfares, Underground Overlays, recorded in a two million-gallon former water tank near Seattle.

The Rambert dancers look wonderful in choreography equal to their talents, which is more than can be said for Javier de Frutos's deliberately tacky The Celebrated Soubrette. Glenn Wilkinson gives contemporary dance a slickly funky edge in Twin Suite 2, and Christopher Bruce tells the true and tragic story of the boxer Rubin Carter in Hurricane, a solo to Bob Dylan's epic song of the same title. Rubin Carter spent 20 years in jail after being framed for three murders and it was a canny, if risky choreographic conceit to merge the persona of a boxer with that of a tormented Pierrot living out his terrible pantomime. The loosely constructed movement needs a more trenchant, fiery charge than Simon Cooper managed. He has the combative muscles, now we want the projection.

To 17 Nov; programme two from 20-24 Nov (020-7863 8000)

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