Sadler’s Wells Theatre, London, UK; February 6, 2015
When Alistair Spalding was appointed Chief Executive and Artistic Director of Sadler’s Wells in 2004, he made the bold decision to foster the theatre as a production centre, providing a number of Associate Artists and Companies with finance and access to the excellent theatre facilities.Spalding has a keen eye for key artists from the UK and overseas and has helped further the development of creators such as Russell Maliphant, Akram Khan and Matthew Bourne. This programme, “The Associates”, spotlighted three from the 18 artists and companies making up the current roster. But even for someone with a strong record of success such as Spalding, everything can’t always go well and only one of the three works on show here hit the mark.
Crystal Pite has established herself as one of the foremost choreographers in contemporary dance and her “Polaris”, created for an earlier Sadler’s programme, featured no less than 66 dancers in an astonishingly creative tour de force. Her “A Picture of You Falling” is for just two dancers. A voice over written by Pite looks back over a failed relationship focusing on one dancer, then a second and finally a duet until they part. Everyday movement of walking and falling is transformed into striking, original choreography involving the whole body as Anne Plamondon and Peter Chu stretch, bend and rotate in solo and then around each other animating a troubled relationship. My eyes didn’t leave the performers for an instant as they danced in lighting designer Robert Sondergaard’s semi-circle of spotlights that create an atmospheric setting of pools of light amidst darkness. Pite worked with Forsythe for many years and brings a similar intelligence and physicality to her choreography, while striking off in her own new directions.
Kate Prince has had terrific success with ZooNation, taking hip-hop to large stages in knock-out shows such as “Boys from the Hood”. Her frequent collaborator, Tommy Franzen, choreographed and danced the opening solo of the evening, “Smile”, with Prince as Director. Franzen portrays Charlie Chaplin, both in his Little Tramp persona and in contrast off-stage as a tormented soul, beset by problems. The words of the title song: “Smile, even though you’re crying”, sum it up. Franzen’s fine comic dancing pulls us in initially, but the Chaplinesque movement palls after a while and later he breaks into street dance for no reason that I could discern other than to provide something different.
However, the great failing of “Smile” is to depict Chaplin off-stage as a pathetic victim of the forces around him. While his traumatic childhood did leave him scarred, I remember seeing footage of Chaplin between takes in a silent short, creating the next scene with dynamic purpose. Further, he co-founded United Artists, painstakingly created his later films as a supreme auteur and stood up for his political principles against US government forces. Nowhere was this energetic, forceful side of him seen in Franzen’s portrayal. I’m surprised that Kate Prince, as the outside eye, didn’t recognise the failings in “Smile” which at some 25 minutes extended the thin material far beyond a viable limit.
The Sadler’s website promised us that Hofesh Shechter’s “The Barbarians in Love” would be “Inspired by the complex beauty of baroque music…a sparse world in which six dancers move with mathematical precision and passion.” Yes, we did get glorious baroque music by Couperin, but with a grating machine noise accompaniment credited to Shechter; and as is usually the case with his work, frequently much too loud.
The six dancers often rove the stage in strict patterns but the movement, ranging from banal ballet positions to crouching, lurching shapes, as if imitating monkeys, was irksome. At one point the performers stand still while Shechter is interviewed by the voice giving instructions to the dancers. Perhaps it was just a function of where I was sitting, but it was difficult to make out the words that seemed to involve soul searching on the choreographer’s part, which some in the audience found amusing. At the end, the dancers move slowly out of the shadows in a line in half light. After a while I realised they were naked but the coy lighting made this difficult to discern and it was only dangling penises that confirmed my hypothesis. The point of this finale was beyond me, and overall it proved the most frustrating dance work I have seen for some time. I have my fingers and everything else crossed that Shechter’s soon to be seen commission for the Royal Ballet shows a return to the form of his terrific “Uprising”.