Subterrain, The Strange Charm of Mother Nature, Terra Incognita

Sadler’s Wells Theatre, London, UK; November 18, 2014

Charlotte Kasner

Mbulelo Ndabeni and Julia Gillespie in Ashley Page's 'Subterrain'.  Photo © Chris Nash

Mbulelo Ndabeni and Julia Gillespie in Ashley Page’s ‘Subterrain’.
Photo © Chris Nash

The evening opened with Ashley Page’s “Subterrain”. At 20 minutes, it would have been monotonous, but at pushing 45 minutes it became a feat of endurance. The fact that the music was by Mark-Anthony Turnage should have been a plus but Page couldn’t resist inserting a mash up with an electronic score by Aphex Twin (aka Richard James) which, like the dance, went nowhere, did nothing and took a long time about it to boot. Comparisons with the Cullberg Ballet’s “Plateau Effect” were being made in the foyer that complemented neither).

There are moments of interest but nothing to hang them on. Surely the audience deserves some frame of reference or at least a dynamic to pique the excitement now and then? Peter Mumford’s lighting is the best thing about it, giving the piece a film noir quality that oddly seemed to be reflected in the music. The use of gauzes is effective, at the opening giving the appearance of a black band at the dancers’ feet from which they emerge into the light, and later creating pools of warmth amid the general gloom. Jon Morrell’s costumes are serviceable: the women’s dresses are flattering but for some reason, one male dancer came on in an ugly maroon wrap-around skirt, or were they baggy culottes? As all the men wore something similar for the last work, I can only assume that there had been a backstage costume crisis necessitating a last minute substitution.

The fact that the Company were really on form, and producing excellent dancing and partnering, could not rescue “Subterrain” from the depths into which it eventually, mercifully, sank.

Hooray then for Mark Baldwin, whose jolly, science-inspired “The Strange Charm of Mother Nature” is a visual and aural delight. Again the lighting, this time designed by Mark Henderson, is both clever and effective, a band of coloured light throbbing and pulsing with changing colours behind the dancers who are clad in bright unitards. Initially, they looked like animated crab sticks then, in all-encompassing yellow, like a herd of Bananamen, divested of super hero status and running around in the yellow nuddy. Like the similarly buoyant “Constant Speed” (reflecting Brownian motion), “Strange Charm” fizzes, pops, surprises and encourages us to consider the peculiarities of quantum physics. Charm quarks are found in hadrons (I’m sure you all knew that) and Baldwin was fortunate enough to have visited the LHC at CERN in preparation for his choreography – which is much easier to digest than the actual quantum physics.

Hannah Rudd and Pierre Tappon in Mark Baldwin's 'The Strange Charm of Mother Nature'.  Photo © Hugo Glendinning

Hannah Rudd and Pierre Tappon in Mark Baldwin’s ‘The Strange Charm of Mother Nature’.
Photo © Hugo Glendinning

Strangeness in this context indicates the nature of the decay of the quark (in itself a pretty peculiar cove by all accounts) and Baldwin allows the movement to fizzle out, stop suddenly or morph into something else to illustrate the point. Quarks move up or down and spin, as do the dancers, meeting briefly for a lift or supported turn and then bouncing off to make contact elsewhere, barely pausing to draw breath.

Baldwin also knows that classical music accompanies contemporary dance like orange accompanies chocolate and, after the neo-classical familiarity of “Dumbarton Oaks”, we were treated to the neat precision of the Rambert orchestra in Bach’s “Brandenburg Concerto No 3”.

Having been underground and sucked into the crazy world of quantum physics, we were then sent to discover “Terra Incognita” by Shobana Jeyasingh and Gabriel Prokofiev (yes, grandson). This, like Page’s “Subterrain”, is a journey that doesn’t really go anywhere although it is more watchable, and a lot shorter. Rambert’s dancers have mastered the art of stylistic changes, this work requiring detailed use of hands befitting its Indian classical roots, and a much more measured approach to the slow and careful moves. Ultimately though they seemed to be wading through treacle to reach their goals and it hardly left one wanting more. Prokofiev’s music, whilst not jarring, doesn’t stick.

By and large this was an uncharacteristically dull evening from Rambert. It might have been tempting to end on a high note with the Baldwin work but then it might have been difficult to persuade the audience to return after the second interval.