Review: Rambert Dance Company at Sadler's Wells

Performance: 15 - 19 May 2012
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Wednesday 16 May 2012

Rambert Dance Company in Mark Baldwin's 'What Wild Ecstasy'. Design: Michael Howells. Dancers: Jon Savage and Mbulelo Ndabeni. Photo: Bettina Strenske.

Performance: 15 May
SUB/ The Art of Touch/ L’Après-midi d’un faune/ What Wild Ecstasy

It was a surprise to learn last night that this is to be Jonathan Goddard’s final season with Rambert (although, hopefully, not the end of his dancing days altogether). But, if he has to go, then this is a great programme with which to sign off! Appearing in three of this quartet of modern gems represents a salutation to Goddard that was writ large in golden ink, flowing through the platinum nib of a diamond-encrusted Fabergé pen. It simply doesn’t come much better than this. And as if to demonstrate both the egalitarianism of Rambert, a company that does without ranking its dancers, and the excellence of the evening; the work in which Goddard did not appear was probably the pick of a very good bunch.

The scene for this celebration of Goddard’s slick, serpentine, sophisticated dance skills was set from his opening solo in the UK premiere of Itzik Galili’s SUB, which was originally made in 2009 for Dansgroep Amsterdam. Goddard has that ‘Fred Astaire’ effect. An indefinable, indescribable something that is so tangibly different from other dancers that it makes him automatically the centre of attention no matter who else is on stage. It is the ability to make time somehow the slave to his movement, which is then seamlessly riveted onto the rhythm of the music. But, here, Goddard is the leader of a pack of seven male dancers who rattle through a warrior-like retort to Michael Gordon’s Weather One. Unusually for Rambert, this is recorded sound, a sacrifice required by the digitised coding of the lighting against the original recorded score. It is such a rare occurrence that it even merits an apology in the programme. But, the loss of live music is easily compensated by Yaron Abulafia’s absorbing lighting designs, which are integral to the spectacle of Galili’s work; as are Natasja Lansen’s Samurai skirts, giving this magnificent seven an authentic Kurosawa rather than an imitation “wild west” feel!

Siobhan Davies’ sublime Art of Touch has lost none of its cutting edge over the 17 years since it was created (Rambert revived it in 2010). It has the simple clarity of fine crystal, sharp and gleaming, and this glass would be best displayed in a baroque setting to match the sound of the solo harpsichord (a marathon of outstanding musicianship by Carole Cerasi). Seven is again the magic number of performers but this time a mix of genders brings with it a memorable time-stopping duet for Goddard and Gemma Nixon, followed by a show-stopping solo by Pieter Symonds; another dancer who makes the simplest dance movement (skipping, walking, jetés, back bends) into a touching work of art. The impetus for Davies’ choreography arose from her inquiry about the plucking action that creates harpsical music, leading to conjecture about how dancers “touch” music; and this finds its output in movement that sometimes mimics the way a musician caresses a key. It is a gentle lullaby of dance which perhaps over-reaches the time it needs and I found some aspects of the later stages difficult to stay focused upon.

No such problem was faced in a superb interpretation of L’Après Midi d’un faune. It is almost sacrilegious to consider matters of authenticity in any revival of Nijinsky’s century-old choreography (in fact, this performance is just 14 days shy of the exact centenary of the premiere) but after nearly 350 performances, an indigenous history dating back to the Ballet Rambert in 1931 and guided over the years by the best of all experts, this is probably as close to the genuine article as possible. More to the point, the role of the faune itself was a tour de force for Dane Hurst: every pose and gesture rang true against the evocative imagery of Adolf de Meyer’s superb photographs of the Ballets Russes dancers, including Nijinsky himself. Unlike many other dancers I have seen attempt this role, Hurst did so without inhibition and with sure feet and hands. He was greatly aided by a posse of expressionless nymphs and by the seductive divinity of Symonds: understandably driving him into the climactic ecstasy of this pleasurable afternoon. No-one is alive to testify to this interpretation’s authenticity but I’ll certainly accept it as the benchmark for others to follow.

Mark Baldwin’s London premiere of What Wild Ecstasy followed after a brief pause – necessary to get one’s breath back – and his title could have been a modern interpretation of L’Après Midi d’un faune, which in a sense it was. A health warning was needed for anyone who suffers from Spheksophobia (a fear of wasps) since three great big ones, looking like escaped extras from a Doctor Who set, hung over the stage. After three works that featured just seven or eight dancers, Baldwin gets most of his company earning their keep in an ensemble piece that creates some whacky dancing in a fascinating array of whacky costumes. Symonds, for example, returns in bright pink knickers, bra-top and a sort of military-bandsman style tunic. Another dancer who caught my eye with some hyper-flexible and supple movement was Julia Gillespie in a fur shrug over bright orange underwear. Apart from the obvious allusion to an outdoor, miniature life, I have no idea what was occurring but it was lively, colourful, lots of fun and brief.

An excellent evening of mixed repertoire. In one of the intervals, I overheard a speaker in the VIP party for the multitude of the great and the good invited to this first night mention that nearly £500,000 is still needed to reach the company’s target of £19.1 million to build their new home. I hope some more cheques were written because we know Rambert are worth it!

Continues at Sadler’s Wells until Sat

Graham Watts writes for many publications including DanceTabs, Dancing Times & Dance Europe. He is Chair of the Critics’ Circle Dance Section.

Photos: Bettina Strenske

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