Review: John Ross - New Adventures Choreographer Award Showcase - Hackney Empire

Performance: 17 & 18 September 2014
Reviewed by Lara Hayward - Monday 22 September 2014

John Ross Dance. Photo: James Williams

Performance reviewed: 18 September

Matthew Bourne and team have picked a worthy winner in John Ross, the latest recipient of the New Adventures Choreographer Award. Like his mentor, Ross uses rich choreography to tell vivid stories and his three part showcase at Hackney Empire is a diverse mix of abstract, funny and hard-hitting dance.

The programme opens with Eclipse, a swirling feast of a collaboration with the talented members of Shoreditch Youth Dance Company. Eight young dancers, dressed in sombre shades of grey explore the light with their limbs as they line up seated on stage. They curl their hands and then wrists towards the sky, like seedlings pushing through soil, before moving in quadrille like formation, through and around each other, working together. Are they individuals or one?

The action has an old-fashioned charm infused with a stealth-like quality – think the coming together of ninja monks with an Amish community. Its fluidity is rapid and calming. As a large red-gold sun enters the stage, the dancers group and cower behind it, particles of a whole now obscured. The moon tracks the sun, causing the eclipse of the title. But for the dancers, this is the catalyst for life. Spinning with ease and flow, their dresses become reams of fabric, fluidly flicking out and extending the martial artistry into a liquid slate collage (courtesy of award winning, long time New Adventures’ collaborator designer Lez Brotherston).

The moon whisks away and those shy tendrils of fingers return, pulsing and extending gently, like a warming sunrise. The alternate pace in Eclipse is as breathtaking as it is beautiful.

In strutting contrast, Wolf Pack starts with a lot of swagger and unexpectedly ends as touching commentary on the importance of friendship. Think The Inbetweeners (Channel 4 comedy) infiltrating a contemporary dance class, it’s a lairy, thrusting tale of a lad’s night out. Ross cleverly draws on the story in The Hangover (Todd Phillips 2009 film, from which this piece also takes its name) and starts and ends in the same place, four boys worse for wear, one face planted on the floor and no idea of how they got there.

Ross positions hip thrusting high jinks, leopard print pants and contemporary phrasing in flashback. Funny and truthful, there are bits of it that we can all identify with. After one too many, friends become foe, and we see a lone wolf, woozy and vulnerable, haunted by a baby, a ram and a pig. Thankfully, creepy masks come off, the black sheep returns to the flock and Wolf Pack ends where it started, brothers united (and probably in need of a good dose of alka seltzer).

If you find politics painful, then analgesics might come in useful for the last piece of the night. Prime Minister David Cameron’s face is not an image you expect to see in a contemporary dance showcase, but it is one of the recurring images which has stayed with me from Little Sheep , Ross’s full-length reflection on the 2011 riots.

The PM’s bonce crops up, Big Brother style, on the backdrop to this tour de force, all thumping beats and smoke-hazy dystopia (great work throughout by set designer Lucy Hanson). Emblazoned on the banner is Dave’s message “don’t worry it will all be ok”. Ross has more than captured the sense of chilling insincerity that prevails in an uneasy political climate. We note more than once that we should be more afraid of the sheep than the wolves.

The titular lambs to the slaughter are the unnervingly balletic riot police. Complete with helmets and shields they dutifully parade and pirouette across the stage under the watchful eye of ‘our leader’. The formal steps convey their brainwashed intent. One by one, the rioters scare them away in their makeshift triangular balaclavas – like upturned KKK masks that obscure the lower half of their faces.

Cut to a neat bit of staging that burns through a door in the black backdrop, temporarily shielding the smirking wrath of our country’s protector. As a rioter surrenders to the police and is beaten for his trouble, his compatriot asks the audience incredulously “Did you see that?”

The question has impact. Ross asks us to acknowledge, uncomfortably, that although we may see what the powers-that-be do, powerless, we let it pass.

In a reversal of roles, rioter then becomes revolutionary, cajoling his own people, creating an uprising. The mob move punchily, (in a way that reminded me of parts of Hofesh Shechter’s Sun ), until they too are under a spell, dancing to the whim of their master.

Ross hammers home the blurry distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’, and the message is that ultimately politics is to blame for society’s paranoia. The lone rioter is subsequently abandoned by those he once inspired, left in a pen like a docile animal under the watchful minister’s glare.

It’s one of many neat tricks, but Little Sheep smacks of the didactic, delivering its message with an unnecessary sledgehammer. I like Ross’s choreography best when it’s persuasive, not pointed. But maybe that’s just me. Overall, I agree with Bourne that Ross is “a choreographer with something to say” . And unlike many of our politicians, he is not afraid to say it. Make sure you keep tabs on him.

www.johnrossdance.co.uk

Ideas Tap opportunity with New Adventures

Photo: James Williams


Lara Hayward is a freelance dance, sport and travel writer. Find her on Twitter @auspicouspixie

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