James O'Hara inSidi Larbi Cherkaoui's 'Faun'. Photo Hugo Glendinning

James O’Hara in Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s Faun.
Photo © Hugo Glendinning

Sadler’s Wells Theatre, London; June 22, 2013

David Mead

Sadler’s Wells Sampled is two weeks of wide-ranging dance where the atmosphere and feel of the theatre is changed in an attempt to attract new audiences. A big part of that involves ripping out half the seats in the stalls and allowing the audience to stand, prom-like. On-stage, performances range across the whole spectrum of the theatre’s usual offerings, but come mostly in bite-size chunks. Sadler’s Wells Sampled goes way beyond simply watching dance, though. On the opening evening of the season there were before-show discussions, screenings of dance for the camera films, art installations and even a chance for audience members to try their hand at choreography. Some evenings also had post-show talks and even hip-hop and tango classes.

As its title suggests, the opening evening featured three works by the theatre’s associate artists that were “Made at Sadler’s Wells.” Opening things, the original version of Russell Maliphant’s “Afterlight” (now known as “Afterlight Part One”) is still as mesmerising as when it was first seen in the 2009 In the Spirit of Diaghilev programme. Thomasin Gulgeç evoked memories of all those old Nijinsky images as he wheeled with grace and sensitivity in ever more intricate patterns. An essential part of the piece is Michael Hulls’ dappled lighting, a shadowy mixture of shapes and patterns suggesting running water that not only circle but graduate towards the centre before seeming to disappear down some imaginary hole beneath Gulgeç as if swallowing him up.

Even better was to come. Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s “Faun” is hauntingly beautiful and I reckon probably comes closer to evoking the music and idea behind it that any other version, Nijinsky’s included. James O’Hara and Daisy Phillips were sensuous and sensitive as they discovered life and each other. They really did look like two new-borns. The choreography may sometimes be acrobatic, but it is always velvety soft and smooth with lots of loose limbs. Nitin Sawhney’s additional music with its echoes of India slots into the Debussy remarkably well.

Wayne McGregor Random Dance in UNDANCE. Photo Ravi Deepres

Wayne McGregor Random Dance in UNDANCE. Photo Ravi Deepres

Wayne McGregor’s “UNDANCE” brought everyone back down to earth with a bit of a bump. It is slightly disappointing. A collaboration with British composer Mark-Anthony Turnage and artist Mark Wallinger, and with the dance inspired by Richard Serra’s compilation of verbs drawn from the work of Victorian photographer Eadweard Muybridge, it is not as dense as many of McGregor’s creations, although it does have a certain complexity.

“UNDANCE” features ten members of Random Dance, in flesh-coloured T-shirts and briefs, set against a gridded video wall. The sides of the stage are completely covered by a huge photograph of a United Nations compound. The dancers’ actions are precise and all illustrate a verb. Lines dissolve into trios and duets and reform with all the dancers on stage most of the time. Too often it looks and feels as if there is little structural cohesion. It all seems rather formless with little connection between the various duets, and what moments of order there are, are overtaken quickly by formless clumps.

If the ‘live’ dance wasn’t busy enough, a further ten figures appear on the video wall, dancing the same choreography but a few counts in front or behind. It is impossible to escape the film. The eyes move from one to the other constantly. It certainly has the effect of replicating the stop-start effect of the Muybridge’s motion picture sequences, although I found it annoying and interesting in equal measure.

The highlight comes out of nowhere when a beautifully lucid duet appears, danced with amazing clarity by Fukiko Takase and Travis Clausen-Knight. All those McGregor trademarks, the fluid back, the gorgeous articulated limbs and extensions, previously partly hidden, are now there for all to see.