Review: Russell Maliphant Company - The Rodin Project - Sadler's Wells
Performance reviewed: 29 October
If the title hadn’t already been grabbed by Ben Stiller et al then this could have been restyled as a Night at the Museum since the whole show is a series of vignettes that appear to bring sculptures into life. But not any old sculptures. Only those by Auguste Rodin will do. In many respects, this is a sequel to Russell Maliphant’s AfterLight , since it continues his theme of creating fluid movement from art. In the case of the earlier work, the inspiration was Vaslav Nijinsky both in terms of his own drawings and through iconic photographs of the dancer; here, it is the paused arc of movement in the sculptures of Rodin – and in particular his 30 year quest to create The Gates of Hell – which has motivated Maliphant and his team.
And the team is so important to Maliphant’s principled protocols for creating dance. The lighting by Michael Hulls is – once again – a crucial ingredient, creating a dream-like gallery with rich blue-grey and golden hues and clever angles that enhance the different planes in Es Devlin’s fascinating set. At one level, her off-kilter structure creates the plinths or the bases for these living sculptures, providing edges, levels and slides. It seems like a dream landscape for a parkour athlete – a “free-runner” – or a wonderful, risky playground for an adventurous child. In the second act, when the cloth coverings are removed, it also resembles the exploded remains of the 2012 Olympic logo after the self-destruct button has been pressed. The final ingredient that pulls such diverse sequences together into a cohesive whole is a sweeping score by Russian composer Alexander Zekke, which has an uncommon grandeur – for a contemporary symphonic work – that seems to fit well against the visual imagery inspired by Rodin’s art.
The first act has a blurry, slow quality as if these sculptures are waking up – Aurora-style – from a century of sleep. It also contains the only flurries of vaguely biographical narrative with scenes that may be Rodin and his mistress/muse (another brilliant sculptor, Camille Claudel). There are moments when the first act drags and confuses but the highlights are an explosive, martial arts-infused duel for Tommy Franzén and Thomasin Gülgeç and another duet between Franzén and Jennifer White which they dance “connected” by balancing rods between their palms.
While this first part is a pleasant haze of vaguely cocooned imagery, the post-interval choreography hits with a jolting impact. The driving forcefulness is mesmeric, punctuated by brief oases of calm, sensual relaxation. The best of the latter comes in a hedonistic solo by White moving with the slow grace of a swan covered only by a robe that is loosely draped toga-style around her naked body while bathed superbly in Hulls’ nebulous, foggy light.
The project draws to a close with two stand-out, powerful dance sequences that I defy to be bettered by anything else we see on stage this year. Firstly, an amazing solo by the statuesque Dickson Mbi, which is remarkable for his control in isolating, contracting and releasing specific muscles to create the popping effect in sudden spasms of movement. There are many excellent poppers but Mbi‘s solo intersperses the jerks with graceful elements of fluidity before freezing into completely locked poses: if you could imagine a bronze melting into liquid movement, then Mbi delivers that thought. He then joins Franzén for a spectacular climbing duo, which Maliphant has wanted to make since some early experimentation in Canada back in the 1990s. The upper body strength of both dancers is breath-taking. It’s like watching gymnasts on the rings dancing while holding the “crucifix” position for an age. They seem effortless and weightless as they stick to the eight foot high wall. There can be few dancers with the skill to even attempt these moves and yet this pair seems so comfortable performing at height.
Maliphant is that rare breed of choreographer – Merce Cunningham was another – who can conjure a special kind of alchemy in making human movement go beyond the human dimension. We can see textural and structural contrast in the dancers’ movement as if we are watching Rodin transfer his medium from plaster to flesh and into bronze. The Rodin Project is a work that is both gentle and dynamic; it contains a narrative without telling a story and creates magical illusions of substance and form.
The Rodin Project continues at Sadler’s Wells until Wed 31 Oct
Graham Watts writes for londondance.com, 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 in the UK.
Sorry, but I disagree. The dancers were mediocre, The choreography weak, the music excruciating and the whole thing lacked energy, togetherness or any purpose.
Everything was far too literal, and the part where the 'sculptors' joined the model on stage to sculpt her was like something primary children might come up with.
I expected much more from Russell Maliphant. The only section that really impressed was the work using the wall by the two male dancers (presumably The Gates of Hell), but even then it was like a Britain's got Talent audition as opposed to a piece of dance.
Your comment "The project draws to a close with two stand-out, powerful dance sequences that I defy to be bettered by anything else we see on stage this year." is baffling. Clearly you didn't see Michael Clark at the Barbican last week?
firstly, thanks for reading the review and taking the time to leave feedback.
You are correct. I didn't see Michael Clark, last week. His work received what the trade might describe as mixed reviews from the professional critics, which I mention merely to illustrate that not everyone sees the same work in the same way. It would be a very boring world if we did.
I disagree with your view of 'The Rodin Project' and I strongly disagree with your assessment that the dancers were mediocre. They are amongst the elite of their profession and the performance that I witnessed was a very strong affirmation of that in my opinion. The key words are those three at the end - it is my opinion based on watching 150 to 200 dance works every years for many years. You are, of course, entitled to your own opinion but it makes my professional judgement no less valid.
I appreciate your reply. I wasn't questioning your judgement or opinion, just voicing my own.
I would point out though that in my opinion, nobody who has been dancing (or doing any other job) for only 7 years is anywhere near the elite of their profession.
All art is subjective, and clearly many people last night felt differently to me. But that's OK. If it doesn't move you, one way or the other, it's not art and that's what makes it so wonderful!
Thanks for the exchange.
On a completely separate note and not joining in the debate above, here's my response to Rodin Project:
Overall I enjoyed the evening. However, I found the first half left me wanting more. In the interval I overheard a conversation near me that summed up the experience "It was like a prelude to something that didn't quite happen". I wouldn't profess to be any sort of expert, but I've seen quite a lot of Russell Maliphant's work before, and for me his movement is about momentum, connections, fluidity, impulse, action and reaction. Therefore watching it feels like trying to catch water flowing through your fingers. The dance equivalent of stream of consiousness. This can be beautiful to watch, but difficult to grasp. Where's the conclusion? Where's the punctuation? I felt the first half would have benefitted from some dynamic contrast. Music is a useful tool for creating structure and dividing a piece into sections. In the first half the music, like the movement, flowed through - and perhaps it would have helped for the music to have clear sections to frame the action.
The second half was much more dynamic and in contrast was fairly episodic. It was as though each little scene was exploring a different aspect of Rodin and his work. For me, this section was much more interesting and satisfying than the first half. I loved the movement quality of the dancers.
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