Review: Phoenix Dance Theatre - Mapping / Shadows / Shift / Document - Linbury Studio Theatre, Royal Opera House

Performance: 25 - 29 November 2014
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Monday 8 December 2014

Phoenix Dance Theatre in Darshan Singh Bhuller 'Mapping'  Photo: Toni Nandi

Performance reviewed: 27 November

Four works all made by men (one by a pair of them) and all with single word titles that also worked in pairs, Shift/Shadows and Document/Mapping. Put like this, Phoenix Dance Theatre’s latest London season sounds as if it might have been a quadruple dose of quite similar stuff. But, putting the commonality of choreographer gender and one-word titles aside, this turned out to be a very varied and fascinating mix.

I always think of this Leeds-based company as the Rambert of the North, but with only a third of the 90-year history and less than half the dancers. Like Rambert, Phoenix now benefits from super new purpose-built premises (which they share with Northern Ballet) and it retains an inquisitive, ambitious and challenging approach to new choreography.

The first two works on this programme can be regarded as a pair. Continuing the thematic link with Rambert, the choreographer of both pieces, Christopher Bruce was the artistic director of that company for many years. Although made seven years’ apart there is a certain stylistic link between Shift and the new work, Shadows: both appear to be set in the 1940s with vintage costumes and props (headscarves, pinafores and suitcases carried by a handle – remember them?). If similar in period, the two works are very different in theme. Shift is a danced tribute to the kind of public information film that was prevalent in that era, the sort of thing that extols the benefits to the nation (maybe the war effort) of honest toil in the factories. Three guys and three girls run through a whole manual of activity, such as turning imaginary crank shafts and pulling on imaginary ropes, all driven along to the pacy mechanical music provided by the last movement of Kenji Brunch’s Swing Shift. Although created in 2007, these Linbury performances represent Phoenix’s premiere of this brief work, using the costumes originally made for Scottish Ballet.

Shadows is both more theatrical and sinister. A group of four (most likely, a family) sit at a table with their coats waiting on a coat-stand and suitcases sitting in the hall. But, one immediately understands that it is no holiday that they are about to embark upon. Arvo Pärt’s mesmerising composition Fratres provides a permanent backdrop of emotional intensity, which Bruce uses to enhance the feeling of imminent danger throughout the work. Fratres was the theme music to a BBC documentary about Auschwitz and the Final Solution so, if you don’t know the music, that will certainly give you the sense of darkness and struggle that it brings.

One of the male characters uses an upturned table as a barricade suggesting that (as in Kenneth MacMillan’s great work of expressionist ballet, The Burrow) this is a family awaiting a knock on the door, or perhaps even for the door to be knocked down. When that doesn’t happen they put on their coats, grab a suitcase each and walk slowly towards an uncertain future. In just 13 minutes, Bruce conjures up a plethora of narrative imagery in dance that possesses an immense sense of theatre. It is a textbook example of less is more.

Where the pair by Bruce combined to last just a shade over 20 minutes, the works after the interval were each around 25 minutes. First up was Document by Ivgi & Greben (an Israeli/Dutch pair who have been making work jointly since 2003). In what might appear to be a futuristic setting, there was a similarity of feel to the subject of Shadows. Five dancers (three girls, two guys) appear to be caught in some enclosed space. Under threat, under attack, they appear at times to be dead men walking and at others to be the walking dead. It is powerful, visceral and frenetic with the whole atmosphere (including music by Tom Parkinson and lighting by Yaron Abulafia) reminding me of smaller-scale work by Hofesh Shechter. The relentless pace is powered by noise, madness, aggression and ultimately death.

An antidote to the dark side came with the final piece, which marked the return to Phoenix of former artistic director, Darshan Singh Bhuller, with his first work for the company since 2006. Mapping was inspired by his father’s journey from “East to West” and it continued the choreographer’s predilection for mixing choreography with visual imagery on film, in this case real-time filming of the dance, most effectively seen from above. The patterns and shapes achieved by the dancing octet (the whole Phoenix ensemble) in their floor-based activity provided a wholly different perspective when viewed on the screen, turning vertical imagery into a horizontal plane. It was frothy, foamy fun and a great way to showcase the superb physicality and technique of these excellent dancers (although I confess to not “getting” the relevance to the father’s journey).

This small company from Yorkshire is genuinely international with just two dancers from the UK being joined by others from Finland, France, Germany, Hong Kong and Spain. All eight were kept very busy, helped only by the guest appearance of Scottish Ballet’s* Andrew Peasgood* to reprise his role in Shift. Four of them – Andreas Grimaldier, Sandrine Monin, Sam Vaherlehto and Vanessa Vince-Pang – appeared in all the works. I first saw Vince-Pang as a teenage, amateur dancer performing in *The Sleeping Beauty* with the English Youth Ballet in Stevenage and so to all those aspiring young dancers out there, here is a great example of a young woman with the determination and talent to make the grade as a professional dancer.

Phoenix showcased a programme that had an excellent balance of thematic relevance coupled with dramatic and choreographic variety. It was a well-balanced and paced mixed bill, providing great value for money in a fascinating evening of dance theatre.

Main photo: Darshan Singh Bhuller’s Mapping by Toni Nandi

Graham Watts writes for, Dance Tabs, Dancing Times and other magazines and websites in Europe, Japan and the USA. He is Chairman of the Dance Section of the Critics’ Circle and the National Dance Awards in the UK.

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