Hall des Chars, Strasbourg, France; June 18, 2014

David Mead

Ballet du Rhin: GenesisProgrammes comprising dances choreographed by company members are valuable for the dancers in that they give them opportunities to show another side to their creativity. By their very nature they tend to be somewhat hit and miss affairs. The Ballet du Rhin’s “Genesis” programme was like that to some extent, although it was one of the best I’ve seen for a long time, with all six dances performed (a seventh, Latif Williams’ “Resonant Pair” was pulled from the programme at the intermission due to injury) showing excellent ideas, an strong sense of purpose and choreography of promise. They were also all very well danced indeed.

Most impressive was Didier Merle’s well thought out “Les Voix humaines”, a work that takes contemporary ballet back to its roots in the French court. Hamilton Nieh and Erika Bouvard did indeed traverse stage space and time as they made visual the link between past and present. It starts in the past with the couple in period dress. Nieh’s red jacket and trousers are particularly colourful. As might be expected the dance is very formal. Coming up to date, Merle then presents two solos that strip away the formality of what went before, but cleverly leaving enough of the movement to allow the audience to see a close connection. Costumes here are a sort of ‘halfway house’. The finale sees the pair in more contemporary dress – the now bare-chested Nieh in a particularly striking pair of red trousers. Their now edgier dance retains an elegance, albeit a contemporary one, and while it may be one more step away from Louis XIV, the links clearly remain.

Humour found its way into the programme in the shape of “?”, described as a comic piece for dancer and pianist (although it’s more than that) by Miao Zong. Renjie Ma is a writer struggling with his ideas and thoughts. Casually dressed, he taps away at his typewriter but is repeatedly distracted and dances away on his castored chair, in one instance seeing a lady in silhouette behind a screen – the romantic lead of his novel, perhaps. The romantic atmosphere is emphasised by Maxime George on piano. Formally dressed and with a glass of sherry, he seems to be from another age; certainly to belong in some upmarket bar.

Where Zong really scores is in creating humour from the situation, the juxtaposition of informal and formal, structure of the piano music and wild creative thought, rather than forcing it through the characters. Incidentally, the combination of the clack of the typewriter keys and the Chopin was most effective.

Eventually, Ma’s patience runs out and he smashes the piano cover down with a loud crash. The two go to leave, but there’s a humorous twist at the end as the previously silhouetted figure breaks through the paper screen, the lady turning out to be a ‘lady’ – none other than the choreographer in drag, much to the surprise of all concerned.

Also particularly enjoyable was Sarah Ehrensperger’s “The Second Side”, a duet by Céline Nunigé and Lateef Williams to some beautiful solo cello music by Pascal Amoyel. It’s a somewhat enigmatic piece about the dancers themselves: two people, two colours, two ways of moving – one soft and supple, one strong, two life stories. It takes place around a 1.25m square picture frame on which projections were made. There is a faster, playful section in which the couple seem to chase each other around the stage, but at other times they appear completely in their own worlds.

Elsewhere, Yann Laine’s “Un” featured Bouvard as a soloist alongside five couples. Her opening dance was as sensual as they come. Her whole body moved with great fluidity. Her circling of her neck and head, and stretching and flexing of limbs, suggested a creature awakening after a long sleep. The later ensemble dance is neatly structured with many unusual straddle lifts and supports. Bouvard later appeared wearing a white fur coat, although the meaning of that was unclear.

“À Corps ouvert” by Stéphanie Madec is another duet, this time an all-female affair for Sarah Hochster and Véra Kvarcakova. One wears a long red dress and is lively, vivacious and energetic. The other, in a simpler white number is more withdrawn and internalised. Both are strong in their own way, but it was hard to escape the feeling that the quieter girl was watching, and maybe wishing the roles could be reversed – which in a sense, at the end, they are.

Choreographer Kevin Yee-chan says that his “the very fabric of existence”, the longest work on show and a dance for the whole company, has multiple influences. It’s certainly true that the ideas come thick and fast. It opens with a guy watching TV, or at least channel-hopping, as he munches his way through a bowl of popcorn, and who is interrupted by the arrival of two women. There follows a dance for another couple, apparently in a deep relationship – sometimes supportive, occasionally fighting. And then another dance, this time jazz influenced for three men and two women, before everyone and more comes together, although quite why everyone strips to their underwear was beyond me, except perhaps maybe it’s an expression of freedom and of enjoyment.

In one sense, the multiplicity of ideas is its major problem; for a long time, little seems to link. And yet, it’s also its strength. In a way it’s Bausch-like. You have to look at the big picture, at life as a whole, rather than trying to make total sense of each scene in any stand-alone way. Whatever, as a closing piece it made everyone smile, and the finale was certainly and upbeat audience pleaser that couldn’t fail to send everyone home happy. I would think Artistic Director and former La Scala and Stuttgart Ballet dancer Ivan Cavallari was pretty pleased too.