Review: Cullberg Ballet - Plateau Effect - Sadler's Wells

Performance: 13 & 14 November, 2014
Reviewed by Siobhan Murphy - Monday 17 November 2014

Cullberg Ballet 'Plateau Effect' Photo: Bettina Strenske

Performance reviewed: 13 November

Jefta Van Dinther’s hour-long work for Sweden’s Cullberg Ballet is definitely going to split opinion. Largely, I’d guess, because there is very little that you could actually call dance in this highly abstract piece. In essence, Plateau Effect’s cast of nine spend most of their time grappling with a large piece of grey silk and some ropes. And yet, I was transfixed by the whole thing, and felt a rather sharp sense of loss when it reached its abrupt end.

How to explain that? Crucially, Van Dinther’s piece felt richly enigmatic rather than just wilfully obscure – it lets your own imagination run riot over its series of strikingly odd images. That’s the case from the very beginning, when the dancers stand in a row in front of the grey silk rigged up as curtains, staring out at us as one then more mime singing a track so haunting and bereft it makes you think of Scandi crime theme tunes (David Kiers’ sound design is magnificent throughout). The dancers start to move, almost imperceptibly slumping at first, then dropping into the billowing folds of silk, writhing, pulling themselves back, as a spotlight strafes them. Suddenly, that nagging Nordic Noir connection means they look like people trying to save themselves from sinking into wet cement. Then one by one they vanish.

It’s an extraordinary opening – but you wonder if the piece has rather lost its momentum when it’s followed by the dancers meandering around on stage, collecting up the silk, organising ropes. Then Plateau Effect starts to build again – these simple materials become elemental forces that the dancers are struggling to manipulate, the huge silk a primal energy to be dominated. They play with taut and slack, conquest and failure: sometimes they appear to be trying to rig up a tent in a gale; sometimes they seem like yachtsmen throwing their whole bodyweight into moving their sail.

The lighting starts to blink on and off for a fraction, intermittently, then flickers of red, blue, pink, green begin, building as a hectic rave soundtrack swells, and pushing the dancers to a frantic pitch. The great fluid shape of the silk is at one point tamed, pinned down by ropes and yelling performers, like a T Rex in a monster movie. Then it’s being rolled across the stage to form a huge snake-like object, with the dancers moving in exhausted slow-mo and offering something that sounds like a witches’ incantation.

The music turns funky – and the dancers, having achieved their mission, move into a thrillingly odd display of rhythmic jerking and shuddering that resembles an achingly hip zombie rave. I could have watched them all night; it felt so joyfully liberating I wanted to join in.

The “plateau effect” is the name given to the phenomenon when the effectiveness of something – for example, exercise, or energy expended, or drug dosage – wears off over time, so you need more for the same result. Quite how this idea relates to what Cullberg’s dancers present is not particularly clear. What I am sure of is it’s one of the most marvellously strange things I’ve seen in a long while.

Photos: Bettina Strenske

Part of the Northern Light season at Sadler’s Wells, which ended on 16 November.

Siobhan Murphy is a freelance writer and until recently was Arts Editor of Metro. Find her on Twitter @blacktigerlily

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