Review: Phoenix Dance Theatre in Mixed Bill at Sadler's Wells

Performance: 28 & 29 April 08
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Thursday 1 May 2008

Sadler’s Wells: 29 April 2008

In his programme notes Javier De Frutos confesses to finding the process of creation to be ‘extraordinarily difficult’, perhaps made more so by the competing demands of his relatively new role as Artistic Director of Phoenix Dance Theatre. What is not in question, though, are his programming skills. This quadruple bill is intelligently crafted and attractive, providing a seamless series of baroque-inspired dance that, although created many years apart, appeared to have lived side-by-side, forever.

De Frutos has given Phoenix yet another new lease of life with a commitment to expand its repertoire with new work by outstanding modern choreographers (including a regular flow of his own output) and also to recreate classic American contemporary dance works for a new audience. Last year, it was Jane Dudley’s ebullient burst of life in *‘Harmonica Breakdown’ that was brought back to life, winning *Kialea Nadine-Williams a National Dance award in the process; this year it is José Limón’s wonderful modern Baroque masterpieces, Chaconne’(1942) and *‘The Moor’s Pavane’ (1949) that have been lovingly resuscitated (under the expert direction of *Sarah Stackhouse – a former principal dancer and partner to Limón).

I was completely absorbed in the constant renewal of theme and variation in Limón’s solo, ‘Chaconne’, enhanced by the precision of Dane Hurst’s brilliant exhibition of baroque movement, which so perfectly inhabited Limón’s spatial masterplan; it was like watching an 18th Century draughtsman creating the most intricate architectural drawing with every part of his body. Varying the same basic themes is also the wherewithal of ‘The Moor’s Pavanne’, perhaps the most seminal use of a baroque movement language in twentieth century modern dance: the legs are never lifted high; hand, arm and back movements are subtle curves and gentle rotations; this is cerebral, rather than gymnastic dance. Whilst the aesthetics of this Limón gem were well observed by the Phoenix dancers, I wasn’t so impressed by the lack of consistency in the crispness of movement, which may signify nothing other than the impossible complexity of the frequently repeated steps.

The best compliment for the two De Frutos works that enveloped the Limón content is that the fit was perfect. The opener – ‘Blue Roses’ – builds upon De Frutos’ own research into the work of Tennessee Williams, specifically inspired by selected passages from ‘The Glass Menagerie’, which is a thinly-veiled auto-biographical work. Williams’ words provide the score and achieve a level of musicality that goes well beyond what one could expect from a spoken text and the choreography generally articulated the words with a sophisticated intent; like a thoughtful, musical sign language.

Finally, I liked De Frutos’ ‘*Paseillo’* much more in this sympathetic baroque-inspired context than when pared with the earthy, violent ‘Los Picadores’. It has a special passion as dancers, dressed in long, neutral, almost monk-like gowns perform a long series of sequential dances in what appears to be a ring (an image encouraged by the regular parading of boxing-round numbers on placards). I love the ending, where Mozart’s sacramental music is suddenly replaced by the Aloha Chorus’ ‘Farewell to You’ – a touch of unpredictability that is lined with genius.

This was not a programme for anyone that likes dance without having to work too hard. It’s a challenging, cerebral exercise, but one that is well worth the effort and shows off the artistic and performance brilliance of this small company to very good effect.

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