Review: Ballet National de Marseille - Body. Dance. Nation. City. - Southbank Centre

Performance: 30 July - 6 August 2016
Reviewed by Siobhan Murphy - Wednesday 10 August 2016

Ballet National de Marseille, Body. Dance. Nation. City.
Photo courtesy of Southbank Centre

Performance reviewed: 6 August 2016

“How can classical ballet be turned into a playground, or rather a battlefield, where the individual and the group meet?” This, according to the company website, is what the Ballet National de Marseille’s co-directors Emio Greco and Pieter C Scholten ponder in Body.Dance.Nation.City, using 17 dancers and a stark, bare stage, fringed with metal chain curtains. If that sounds rather enigmatic, the piece itself only amplifies that confusion.

Originally titled Le Corps du Ballet National de Marseilles (‘the body of the BNM’ – note the ‘du’), Body.Dance.Nation.City uses a corps de ballet, dressed in flesh-coloured, ruched outfits and matching masks, to evoke crowd dynamics. The dancers swoop and flock around the stage, running in circles, whirling their arms in grand gesticulation. Odd moments punctuate this massed, synchronised movement: the group standing in line downstage while one tentatively whistles La Marseillaise; the dancers dropping to their knees, arms outstretched, while three dance round them; one dancer stepping forward and swaggering like a rock star.

Then the soundscape, which has been switching between everything from heartbeats, breathing and what sounds like someone munching, to a call to prayer, to the noises of a tropical night, suddenly becomes Tchaikovsky, and the dancers’ til now fractured classicism coalesces into Swan Lake’s big pas de deux moves. They carry on, taking turns as swan princess and prince charming, even as the music changes to a mash-up of renditions of the French national anthem (traditional, operatic, reggae, hip hop etc).

And the BNM dancers, given the chance to flex their classical muscles, look truly striking, whipping off perfect fouettes, powerhouse leaps and spins. One male dancer even dons pointe shoes. The music may shift into an acapella version of Imagine, a bit of Tricky, more of those odd sounds hoiked out of a foley artist’s library, but it’s the classical steps that hold your attention however out of context they are placed.

A certain Gallic crabbiness peeks through in places: one dancer smokes extravagantly; couples end their duets by one pushing the other away and stalking off. It reminds you of the second half of the title, which suggests BNM want to evoke Marseille, its Frenchness and its melting-pot possibilities, as much as they want to stage a face-off between classical and contemporary movement. This would be great, but the whole doesn’t really hang together and it’s hard to get a handle on Greco and Scholten’s overarching motivation when you can’t be sure what’s being offered as parody and what as sincere homage.

Siobhan Murphy is a freelance writer and editor, who also contributes to Dancetabs and Time Out. Find her on Twitter @blacktigerlily

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