Review: Rosas, Richard Alston Dance Company, Akram Khan Company in Dance to Music by Steve Reich - A Triple Bill at Barbican Theatre

Performance: 28 - 30 September
Reviewed by Marion Jones - Friday 6 October 2006

Dance Umbrella and the Barbican’s Steve Reich season came together at the Barbican to create a well-conceived and thoughtful evening that aimed to bear witness to the variety of Steve Reich’s work and the individual responses to it from three very different choreographers.

First up was Rosas and two segments, Piano Phase and Violin Phase, from a four-part work, Fase, four movements to the music of Steve Reich, dating from 1982. This is an early work by Rosas’s Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker to early work by Reich (the other two Reich works used were Clapping Music and Come Out). Piano Phase is performed by De Keersmaeker and Tale Dolven, simply presented figures with short ponytails, subtly different grey-white sleeveless dresses and white ankle socks above sensible white shoes. Behind them on the white backdrop are their shadows, showing two dancers and a third that is actually the two overlapped. As they move, this last shadow will at times separate to create a fourth. Already we are in the clipped structural world of Reich. When the dance begins with the dancers’ right arms rising and falling like pendulums, leading their feet to move and their dress skirts to turn like whirling dervishes, we are immediately in De Keersmaeker’s world, too.

De Keersmaker’s is an intellectual place but also a visceral one, whose rigorous minimalist structures and relentless repetitions can easily overwhelm the viewer. Here, the deliberately limited movements seem extraordinarily rich in their graceful simplicity. The pianos start to slip out of synch and so do the dancers. Their turns, which have been going the same way, now seeming to mirror each other, as if one has turned the opposite way; in fact, it is just an illusion of timing. We are invited to see and see again, just as we listen and hear again as the pianos lose and find each other, like pealing bells. It is a hypnotic work.

In Violin Phase, De Keersmaeker dances alone, dimly lit in a small circle of muted light. She twists back and forth from her waist, then adds feet, describing half turns around the circle, then back again adding an arm or raised knee to the build-up of movement. She moves in to the centre and out again, as if tracing spokes on a wheel and, in the centre, has a minimalist version of 32 fouettés with a pendulous leg that swings her round and round. This is a less literal reponse to Reich, a fully realised private world of movement that also pays homage to classical dance, and is intensely performed.

Richard Alston was commissioned by Barbican Bite 2006, and created a piece around Reich’s 1995 Proverb, which was in turn inspired by the medieval work of Perotin, particularly Viderunt Omnes. Both pieces were performed here live in a world premiere by Theatre of Voices and Athelas Sinfonietta Copenhagen, positioned on stage behind the dancers. Beginning with Perotin, the unaccompanied voices were joined by dancers who came and went, forming small groups then large, their simple costumes of red, buttermilk, ice and sky blue neatly evoking a Middle Ages of court performers and illuminated manuscripts. Listening to the drone effect of the held lower notes and the complex interweaving of the voices above, it was easy to see how this exquisite early example of polyphony would influence Reich. Less easy, however, was the juxtaposition of this sacred music with some of Alston’s more secular groupings, particularly the man/woman pairings, which seemed to belong more to Alston’s schmaltz-jazz soundtracks. Other groupings mimicked the interconnectedness of the music and the Wittgenstein text accompanying Proverb: ‘How small a thought it takes to fill a whole life’, as a male hand softly touched the floor, and a girl held another’s knee, anticipating her fall.

Akram Khan Company was joined on stage by the London Sinfonietta for Reich’s Variations for Vibes, Pianos & Strings, a commissioned piece receiving its London premiere. The three dancers – Khan, all contained intensity; loose limbed and joyous Gregory Maqoma and the ethereal Young Jin Kim – proved perfect counterpoints to each other. Tensions arise and are deflected in their masculine energy triangle, in which turns, for example, are effected by martial-art style kicks. It’s not a bullish masculinity, however: all respond to the music, pausing during a lush passage. They pay perhaps a dancer’s ultimate 70th birthday homage to Reich by dance-conducting, Khan’s arms and hands so expressive as he plays air piano, while the conductor enters their dance space in his stocking feet. In a similarly reciprocal moment, Reich joined his collaborators in a rapturously received curtain call; one which you felt, he was sharing with all the artists of this fascinating evening.

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