Sadler’s Wells Theatre, London; November 14, 2013     

David Mead     

Fang-yi Sheu and Clifton Brown in Christopher Wheeldon's 'Five Movements, Three Repeats'. Photo © Erin Baiano

Fang-yi Sheu and Clifton Brown in Christopher Wheeldon’s ‘Five Movements, Three Repeats’.
Photo © Erin Baiano

China-born Yuan Yuan Tan and Taiwanese Fang-Yi Sheu are a couple of extraordinary dancers. Both are well-known in their respective homes and abroad. Indeed, in Taiwan, Sheu is probably the one dancer who will sell a performance on name alone.

They do come from very different backgrounds. A principal with San Francisco Ballet, Tan is from the out and out classical school. She is tall and lean and striking extensions. Coming from the Graham-tradition Sheu, who now runs her own ensemble in New York, is stronger, far more grounded, and dances very much from the inside. Indeed, she was once described as “the finest present-day embodiment of Martha Graham’s technique and tradition.” They are styles that complimented each other surprisingly well in the five works on show, where they were partnered excellently by Damian Smith (also San Francisco Ballet) and Clifton Brown (previously of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre).

Edwaard Liang’s “Finding Light” was comfortably the least engaging of the five works on show. It’s delicate and pleasant, but although the choreography is comfortably assured, it turns out to be a rather inconsequential duet. Tan is a sublime mover. Her long, wiry limbs seem to reach out forever into the space. Unfortunately, she also remained completely aloof from her partner. Indeed, I’m not sure she ever actually looked at him. Maybe that’s what Liang was after, but the movement suggests they should be a couple deeply in love and there should be more. What we got was a dance about the steps and very little else. It wasn’t that the dancers lacked expression, more that the same one was shown the whole way through, especially by Tan. Smith is a fine dancer, so it was disappointing that he was somewhat reduced to a supporting role; in all senses of the word.

Yuan Yuan Tan and Damian Smith in Edwaard Liang's 'Finding Light'. Photo © Wang Xiaojing

Yuan Yuan Tan and Damian Smith in Edwaard Liang’s ‘Finding Light’.
Photo © Wang Xiaojing

Russell Maliphant created “PresentPast” specially for Sheu, and it shows. It’s a smouldering solo that suits her perfectly. It opens with her standing, bathed in a single beam of Michael Hulls’ golden light. She looks starkly beautiful, like an amazing objet d’art in a museum case. The dance has far more inner motivation than that in “Finding Light”, which makes it seem much stronger, and gives it depth and meaning. The intensity is there for all to see. To Caruso singing “Una Furtiva Lagrima”, Sheu produces any number of deep arching backbends and big arm circles. The second half is a darker, contrasting semi-repeat in which Andy Cowton’s angular, percussive soundscape combines with Hulls’ lighting to send unsettling jarring movements coursing through Sheu’s body. Her movement is sharper and more jagged, although it still very much came from the inside, which kept it mesmerising. The piece and the title left me wondering if this was a play on Sheu’s career. Was this her past, or at least her feelings about her past, and where she feels her present to be?

It was back to Tan and Smith for Wheeldon’s well-known “After the Rain”. Some of it looked a tad more awkward than I recall, but worst of all was that it was unengaging. Danced well, this is one of Wheeldon’s best duets, but again there was a near absence of meaning and feeling. Being distant does fit neatly with th eidea behind the piece, but that does not mean having to show the same, unchanging expression in the face and the body, which again is what we got. While that approach does leave one to admire the choreography, anyone who recalls Wendy Whelan and Jock Soto dancing this would have been sorely disappointed.

Another Wheeldon piece, “Five Movements, Three Repeats”, gives exactly what the title says, all four dancers coming together as a chorus that links verses featuring solos and duets. Those linking sections have interesting moments of unison, and the contrast in styles is fascinating, but it’s in the five duets and solos that the work really comes to life.

Fang-yi Sheu in Russell Maliphant's 'PresentPast'. Photo © Belinda Lawley

Fang-yi Sheu in Russell Maliphant’s ‘PresentPast’.
Photo © Belinda Lawley

It’s Sheu that holds the piece together. The intensity seems to ramp up several notches whenever she is on stage. Particularly enjoyable was a solo that appears to contain many references to playing the piano, and in which Wheeldon has cleverly tapped into the lighter, fun side of her personality. A duet between her and Brown was almost as impressive and a great example of perfect togetherness. Here the dance had expanse and freedom. The shadows of the couple projected onto the backdrop were gorgeous. The music by Max Richter was the ideal accompaniment.

Rounding things off on style, Tan and Sheu came together in a reworking of Maliphant’s exhilarating “Two x Two”, originally made on his wife Dana Fouras, although made popular by Sylvie Guillem. The choreography is dazzling but all too brief. With each situated in a square of light, the dance slowly builds in intensity. The dancers’ arms whirl with increasing speed until they become little more than a blur. The way the light caught them made it seem like last week’s fireworks celebrations had returned.

At the end, Tan finally broke into a broad smile. Maybe the release from the out and out classical vocabulary freed her in other ways too.