Rambert, Sadler's Wells, London François Testory, Robin Howard Dance Theatre, The Place, London

After 100 years of the new, modern dance is still fizzing

Jenny Gilbert
Saturday 19 May 2012 20:13

Next year Rambert really will have something to celebrate, when it moves to gleaming new premises on London's South Bank. But for the moment it has the 100th birthday of the world's first piece of modern dance to toast, and 10 years of able leadership from Mark Baldwin, who offers his own choreographic answer to Nijinsky's strange, feral L'Après-midi d'un faune.

Under Baldwin, Britain's oldest dance company has paid close attention to its past – tricky, given its founding commitment to the new. But Baldwin knows it must if contemporary dance is to be seen as anything other than ephemeral. Hence the centrepiece of the evening: Siobhan Davies's 1995 career-best, The Art of Touch.

This achieves the feat not only of responding to its set of fizzing Scarlatti harpsichord sonatas with gleeful wit, but also of impersonating the instrument – its rapid precision, its action of quill plucking string, even its quality of sound. I don't know of a piece of dance more synaesthetic. At one point, the seven dancers jump manically from side to side, their feet switching direction like levers, their hands a blur just like the jangle of Carole Cerasi's brilliant playing. Its aptness makes you laugh out loud.

Itzik Galili's SUB won't be remembered years from now, but this muscle-fest for seven bare-chested guys with what look like army greatcoats slung around their hips is gruesomely watchable, if only for the quantity of sweat it generates and the play of lighting on every dripping sinew.

Perhaps it was a sop to Rambert's male cohort, given the daft feathers and fluff they consent to wear for What Wild Ecstasy, the new Baldwin item, which responds to the drowsy, animalistic urges of l'Après midi with an Acid House mating session for birds and bees. Peculiarly, though, Michael Howells's bold design features three giant wasps suspended over the action, poised as if about to zoom down to nibble someone's sandwich. But you get the general thrust, as it were, which is the urgency in the natural world to reproduce. Gavin Higgins's score (a Cultural Olympiad commission) is a riot of rutting strings and rude brass. The frenzied choreography isn't memorable, but the overall effect is a joyous crescendo of colour and energy that culminates in an orgasmic shower of yellow balls.

Preceding it, Nijinsky's original, or at least Marie Rambert's 1931 memory of it, is given a beautifully refined reading. Dane Hurst is compellingly remote as the Faun, his movements flattened and jerky in a manner that suggests both the 2D of an Egyptian frieze, and the startled movements of a wild creature. The Rambert Orchestra under Paul Hoskins rises easily to the challenges of Debussy's swooning heat-haze of a score.

François Testory, a performer whose long career has defied all attempts to label him, is still faun-like in his taut physique. Empire, directed and designed by Simon Vincenzi, is a one-man cabaret in which Testory assumes the character of an ageing chanteur-danseur who has somehow missed the boat. Part Pan, part Blanche Dubois, necking champagne from the bottle and tossing back pills, he blots out his fear of oblivion by running through his dream routine half-naked in a darkened theatre. A growly Edith Piaf number, a Spanish patter-song, a folksong in Old French, a haunting, falsetto "Music for a While" by Purcell, accompanied by Ian Hill's accordion – his range is astonishing. The movement, until he reduces it to static, highly wrought Greek-god poses, is less memorable, but all of a piece.

Critic's Choice

Mark Bruce (son of Christopher) has a track record of pungently charismatic dance theatre. Dark and sometimes comic, Made in Heaven merges ancient themes with a contemporary dystopia, set to music ranging from Debussy and Leadbelly to The Black Keys. At Exeter's Northcott Theatre (Wed) and Dance City, Newcastle (Sat), followed by a run at Wilton's Music Hall in London (31 May to 2 June), and further touring.

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