Review: Rambert Dance Company in The Art of Touch / RainForest / A Linha Curva at Sadler's Wells

Performance: 25 - 29 May 2010
Reviewed by Lise Smith - Wednesday 26 May 2010

Rambert Dance Company in Siobhan Davies' 'The Art of Touch'.  Photos: Hugo Glendinning
May 2010

Reviewed: 25 May

Let’s get the obvious point out of the way first: when you go to see a performance by Rambert, you expect to see good dancing. The company has few competitors when it comes to the technical excellence of its dancers, which serves to throw the quality of the choreographic material itself into relief: if the virtuosity of the dancing is a given, then the success or otherwise of a Rambert performance hangs almost entirely on the choice of works performed. Fortunately, the company is also blessed with gifted collaborators, a savvy programming team, and a repertory archive others would die for.

On the current UK tour, the company is presenting eight works in repertory including pieces by Richard Alston, Henri Oguike and current Artistic Director Mark Baldwin. The London triple bill opened with Siobhan Davies’s The Art of Touch, originally created on seven members of her own dance company in 1995. Here, Davies investigates the different ways in which dancers touch – the floor with their feet, each other with their limbs, the space with their bodies and the music with their movements.

The piece is set to a series of uptempo baroque sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti interspersed with Matteo Fargion’s gentler, more contemplative modern compositions, all played live on harpsichord by Carole Cerasi. At times, the dancers seem to literally pluck the music from the air, reaching delicately toward the wings to summon a chord from the instrument. The fast, intricate movement phrases, flawlessly matching the breakneck cadences of Scarlatti’s music, recall the work of Richard Alston far more than they do the choreographer of Birdsong or Two Quartets. It’s a dazzling work of bravura, and all seven dancers shine in the various solos, duets and ensemble sections that make up the work; Pieter Symonds particularly thrilled the audience at Sadler’s Wells with her strong, expressive central solo.

Rambert continues its long held connection with the work of Merce Cunningham with its revival of RainForest, premiered at Sadler’s last night in tribute to the choreographer who died last year. Cunningham is something of a Marmite choreographer, and RainForest the type of work that confirms existing prejudice – audiences tend to find the six dancers’ slow, sustained adages and dainty triplets either brilliant or totally baffling.

The 1968 work, premiered at the rather splendidly named Second Buffalo Festival of the Arts Today, features a striking set by Andy Warhol based on his earlier installation Silver Clouds. The pillow-shaped, silver helium balloons bob and float at different heights around and on the stage, and reinforce Cunningham’s choreographic chance procedures in two ways: firstly, the balloons themselves are chaotic, and frequently share space with the dancers in unexpected ways. Sometimes, a performer will kick a balloon out of the way as they extend a leg into arabesque; sometimes a silver pillow on the forestage will obscure part of the action from view.

Secondly, the floating set contributes to the chance nature of the audience’s gaze – I found myself watching the ballet of the balloons behind the dancers almost as often as the performers themselves. Together with David Tudor’s undulating soundscore, played live by John Bowers and Robert Millet on what looked like the contents of somebody’s kitchen cupboard suspended from a wire frame in the pit, the drifting balloons created a dreamy, psychedelic setting for a work that can only be described as pure Cunningham.

A Linha Curva brought with it a complete change of pace, the 28 performers of the full company arriving onstage in tiny lycra hotpants to shake, ripple and shimmy their way through Itzik Galili’s tub-thumping finale. Taking its cues from a distinctly street-party version of Latin American dance, and set to a fiery samba-drum score performed by percussion troupe Percossa, A Linha Curva doesn’t let up in energy or buoyancy from its opening whoop to its closing stamp. I wanted to grab anyone who had thought that samba was something performed on Strictly Come Dancing by Christine Bleakly in a pink frock and thrust them in front of this piece until they understood differently.

With so much already happening on stage, the decision to create a parallel choreography for the lighting rig was ambitious and not always successful. Galili’s own lighting design has a flashing grid of coloured squares picking out groups of the dancers in sequence, but this rather distracts from the energy of the dance – the lighting state changes sometimes struggle to keep up with the frenetic pace of the movement, leaving the dancers occasionally unlit and the action momentarily invisible. Lighting quibbles aside, A Linha Curva brought the roof down with its infectious party mood on Tuesday.

Taken as a whole, the London triple bill demonstrated not only the well-attested physical virtuosity of the Rambert dancers but also their versatility, and with it the depth and range of the company’s repertoire. From Cunningham to carnival, it seems there’s nothing these superhuman performers can’t do, and I look forward to finding out how they’ll surprise us all next.

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