Review: Rambert - Season of New Choreography - Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Centre

Performance: 14 May 2013
Reviewed by Donald Hutera - Tuesday 21 May 2013

Miguel Altunaga’s 'Automatic Flesh' Photo: Chantal Guevara

It’s the nature of the beast that mixed bills almost invariably elicit a mixed response. This can ring especially true when all the works on offer are world premieres, as was the case with Rambert’s one-off platform of dances by four ‘in-house’ choreographers. Like English National Ballet’s recent showcase of six short dances created by company members (presented at The Place on May 3 and reviewed for by Laura Dodge), the idea here was to foster a relatively close collaboration with a composer. Independent of what this creative opportunity must’ve meant to the choreographers involved (and that, I suspect, is the top priority), what struck me about each evening was that their over-all tone and content was either terribly serious-minded, heavy-handed or both. Neither was a waste of time – after all, there’s usually some pleasure to be had from watching top-notch dancers in action. But I can’t say I left either one feeling like a satisfied customer.

The piece that worked best for me was Dane Hurst’s curtain-raiser, Primitive. Hurst himself materialised first, his head and entire body – save for a bare chest and a bit of back – shrouded in black fabric; this unidentifiable but arresting figure (Death? If not, something darkly symbolic…) writhed slowly in an overhead light before disappearing. Subsequently the rest of the cast – eight others, all in flesh-coloured underwear courtesy of designer Georg Meyer-Wiel, assisted by Caroline Hagley – seemed to be enacting a strange, sometimes striking ritual carried along by an undercurrent of sexualised threat.

My interpretation isn’t far off the mark as what motivated Hurst to make the piece in the first place was witnessing a violent argument between a man and a woman; whether or not he intervened, he did take note of certain primal urges and rages – theirs, and his as bystander. Hurst then translated the experience, and its aftereffect on him, into is a clutch of ambiguous and varyingly effective encounters marked by pulling, catching and what could be called ‘manhandling.’ One of the more memorable had a man rushing up behind one woman holding another in her arms; he pressed and shook against the holder until she slipped down to the floor, a manoeuvre that allowed him to take up the burden of a second woman. In another kinetic novelty a man used a woman like an irritating weapon against another male, batting at him with her torso or limbs. Elsewhere a woman was dragged across the stage; three others slid a fourth about on her feet; two females had an oozy, puppet-like exchange; and a woman was set upon especially by one of three men.

I didn’t always understand the semi-abstract drama unfolding before me (backed up, in a programme note, by stats provided by the agency Rape Crisis), nor did I feel there was an inevitability behind each movement. Maybe, too, Hurst could’ve tried harder to render the women more than mere victims of male abuse, if indeed that’s primarily how they were meant to be perceived. Still, Primitive hooked me in part because of the meaty, Francis Bacon-like hue of the costumes and Paul Green’s lighting (although I don’t get why mainly dormant fairy lights were strung above the stage) and the half-ring of pinkish fabric arcing round the stage (which turned out to be skirts that all but Hurst donned). I was also very much drawn in by Tommy Evans’ haunted jazz score (recorded, alas, rather than live).

Miguel Altunaga’s Automatic Flesh was a study of contemporary urban anomie, a familiar theme particularly for budding dance-makers. And yet, despite the less-than-original subject matter, several of Altunaga’s kinetic stage pictures caught my eye. At the start ten dancers moved about on a small-scale, like a quietly shifting human cityscape; meanwhile a lone, patently frustrated man executed fast, violent moves including dropping down from handstand onto elbow followed by an abrupt, thudding collapse. A petite woman vocalised a sing-song tune in a foreign tongue as another woman leapt off men’s shoulders into a crowd waiting, luckily enough, to catch her. The singer then defiantly grappled with a bigger man in what could be deemed a duet of conflicted intimates. Another body was dragged across the floor. The steady rhythmic stomp of a wedge of citizens was accompanied by their own audible breathing. This was followed by a lot of swift, low-sweeping ensemble unison.

Altunaga’s vision of the machinated dehumanisation of modern life contained a brief moment of tenderness when couples briefly embraced. But such evidence of sympathetic interconnection was short-lived. Soon there was mocking group laughter at the expense of someone (female) at the centre of a circle, and a solo – like a troubled reverie – for Malgorzata Dzierzon, I believe, as everyone else stood frozen in a stage right queue, some leaning sideways until eventually they began to fall out of rank and down onto the floor. (And here came the flaw in Alex Harwood’s otherwise unobtrusive score for piano and string quartet, as the music began telegraphing the supposed poignancy of their collective condition.) Surprisingly, and despite an inability to surrender to Altunaga’s work, I may’ve gotten more out of it than I realised as I was scribbling in the dark watching it. I think he shows promise (although I’d advise cutting a couple of bits of business involving the loss of women’s knickers), and certainly the dancers seemed committed to the work.

The second half of the night was more problematic. Patricia Okenwa’s Longing had something to do with the order that arises out of naturally occurring patterns, and what happens when they collide or merge… The programme note was as woolly-minded as the dance itself. What I saw was eight dancers passing through vague, undercooked motions that seemed neither particularly attractive nor significant. It happens sometimes, a failure to connect with a work on virtually any level including, in this case, Cheryl Frances-Hoad’s score Memoria, a slightly tortured (though not torturous) composition for strings, piano and oboe/cor anglais. I wound up watching Meyer-Wiel and Hagley’s costumes – stylish and black with variously coloured (pink, white, red, lavender, aqua, etc) accents in the form of stripes, waves and other patterns – more than the dancers inside them. Could that possibly have been intentional? If so, it may be that Okenwa’s blurry, seemingly formless Longing deserves more credit than I was willing to give it.

The bill closed with Kirill Burlov’s septet Woman and her Riding Hood , a would-be antic reboot of the fairy tale that was rather bonkers without actually being much fun. Olga Lowenstein’s costumes were a cross between pseudo-medieval and neo-hippie garb, with eyes instead of nipples on the women’s chests and even guest conductor Tim Murray and his eight musicians (all stationed behind an upstage scrim, as they’d been throughout the night) donning pointy stocking hats. Some of the dancers’ clothing was adorned with cut-out letters identifying them as Granny, Mum and so on but, if there was characterisation or narrative at work here, the choreography itself betrayed no discernible structure. Might a greater rigour in that regard have been a better springboard for the work’s intended playfulness? Much of the arch absurdity was of a sexual nature – hands on crotches or bums, plus slithery crawls and gyrations – but, again, perhaps what was lacking was a surer, more buoyant sense of guidance. Cued to Frances-Hoad’s arrangement of often jaunty, jazzy and carnivaliseque film soundtrack-style music, this peculiarly flat piece’s aura of knowing nonsense operated in a void.

Donald Hutera writes regularly about dance, theatre and the arts for The Times, Dance Europe, Animated and many other publications and websites.

Photos: John Ross and Chantal Guevara

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