Review: CCN - Ballet de Lorraine – Unknown Pleasures - Sadler's Wells - part of Dance Umbrella 2016

Performance: 7 & 8 October 2016
Reviewed by Siobhan Murphy - Monday 10 October 2016

CCN - Ballet de Lorraine – 'Unknown Pleasures'. Dance Umbrella 2016. Photo: Bettina Strenske

Performance reviewed: 7 October

The opening salvo of this year’s Dance Umbrella festival is definitely bold in its intentions. Unknown Pleasures presents a mixed bill of work created by five choreographers (four women, one man, ranging from their thirties to their seventies) who are not credited. Stage, lighting and costume designers, and musicians are all also anonymous. Strip away preconceptions, goes the thinking here, and you free the dance. Of course, it’s not that simple. It’s also throwing down a gauntlet – are you sufficiently au fait with contemporary dance to guess the choreographers’ “signatures”? (And you find yourself wondering, isn’t it odd that an anonymous show is dominated by women creators. How many male choreographers turned down the gig because they wouldn’t get their name in lights?)

The evening is constructed as a smoothly flowing 75 minutes, with four main pieces and the fifth acting as the linking segments between them. These “interludes” mainly involve dancers in different combinations appearing and striking fidgety poses while singing odd snatches of chanted song. For one segment a couple cautiously make their way along the very edge of the stage, clinging to each other and singing softly; for the last one a man alone in the middle of the stage looks slightly lost, tapping and shuffling his feet. They add an element of the surreal to the proceedings – and offer the rare sight of a dancer performing in flip flops.

The first main piece uses all 20 of Ballet de Lorraine’s dancers to striking effect. Simply dressed, with white T-shirts bearing letters on front and back (sometimes the same letter, sometimes different), they start in a circle and begin to rotate, spinning individually as the circle moves anti-clockwise. Then, kaleidoscope-like, they start to form new patterns – an inner and outer circle; carefully constructed lines. Sometimes they move with arms stretched wide, whirling like dervishes; sometimes they move forward and back with neat pivot steps, all united by a beautiful precision. The regimented formality is quite hypnotising – so much so it took me far too long to realise that there were messages being spelt out through the T-shirts – I particularly liked the line that briefly gave us “turning/burning”, changing as the first man spun.

Next up, six dancers in a set of spiky duets. The first couple recoil from, then give in to each other’s touch in a jagged display of resistance and dependence. The other two couples complement this central performance – one couple together but not touching – before they merge into an uncomfortable group. The music is equally shattered. There’s a compelling, supportive and highly athletic male duet in the middle but this feels very much like a perceptive comment on fraught relationships.

Eight dancers in gold body suits take the stage for the third main piece. They begin with what looks like ballet school morning warm-up, running through positions in silence, together but not in sync. Slowly, the movements start to break down; rigid classical expressions becomes looser as music starts to build – the evolution into contemporary dance sweeps the dancers up into a unified performance stoked by an anxious energy. It’s a thoughtful, exhilarating piece.
Finally a touch of high-spirited (Gallic?) silliness. Ravel’s Bolero accompanies the dancers (men with bare torsos, women in black) as they utilise ever more daft ways to cross the stage, back and forth, one by one and then in a playfully daft deluge – as though the Ministry of Silly Walks had arrived en masse to attempt military manoeuvres. From among this cacophony, one couple emerge for a messy, tangled duet – a love story of sorts, involving much groin thrusting (including from the rest of the dancers, who’ve congregated to observe) as Bolero starts speeding up. There’s a devil-may-care daftness at play here that is hard not to find appealing.

Does it matter who created them? I’d probably have got more out of the individual pieces if I’d known the authorial voice, just because any choreographer’s body of work inevitably speaks as a whole. But the anonymity doesn’t detract from the evening – and the Ballet de Lorraine dancers show immense skill and nuance as they switch between these demanding creations.

Dance Umbrella continues at venues across London until 22 October

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

Photos: Bettina Strenske

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