Cullberg Ballet in 'The Plateau Effect'.  Photo © Urban Jörén

Cullberg Ballet in ‘The Plateau Effect’.
Photo © Urban Jörén

Sadler’s Wells Theatre, London; November 13, 2014

Charlotte Kasner

The first half of this hour-long work is mostly stillness. It’s just as boring as the frenetic second half, but slightly easier on the audience.

The dancers stand in a line across the front of the stage, lit from waist to just above their heads, and backed by a large white, grommeted cloth. As they stand, the audience are assailed by a strange soundscape that seems as if someone has tried to develop a disco while being limited to industrial sounds. The performers sway a little like insects caught in a web.

Eventually, they begin to squirm and writhe and the bar flies in, dazzling the front rows of the stalls with the topping of strip lights while they unlash the cleats and gradually manipulate the cloth so that it becomes horizontal. They grab downhauls and hoist it like a giant handkerchief. It becomes a row of nomads’ tents, then a copy of the roof of the bus station at Stratford and then – a sail, a sail – as Shakespeare said.

This goes on for an age whilst the soundtrack grinds and groans in sympathy. The movements are deliberate and controlled as if the dancers are all on Valium and moving through treacle. It is clear that they have not been minutely choreographed and that they have to work as a team in order to achieve their mysterious aim. At times they work against each other but ever so slowly and purposefully they solve their problems and flap and flutter the cloth and thrash the lines. Sometimes they almost trip themselves up or tangle in the lines or create a knot which at least provides a little frisson of danger.

There is only so much of this that can arrest the attention even with the tripping and the knots, so the backcloth takes on an aura of fascination. It is also a white rectangle but mottled to resemble one of those curious, apparently abstract, pictures that were briefly fashionable and that were supposed to resolve into a tangible image after a concentrated period of indirect staring. If you take advantage of the brain’s hardwiring knack of conjuring faces out of almost anything, it is eventually possible to elicit Mount Rushmore from it. I particularly liked the face that I contrived stage right; a staid, dependable fellow that I would have been pleased to meet.

'The Plateau Effect'.  Photo © Urban Jörén

‘The Plateau Effect’.
Photo © Urban Jörén

Eventually, I was again forced to watch the dancers’ fight with the white cloth as my ears were assaulted by an irritating, tiny clanging. It was as if a toddler had been given a chime bar and a hard stick and was repeatedly beating it again and again and again and again and again ad infinitum. The first few hundred times, it was interesting to listen for the harmonics in the resonance but that pales fairly quickly. Just as it becomes tempting to nod off in spite of the racket, the lights dip sharply. So, there ensues ten minutes of wondering whether a late night workman has sliced through a nearby cable or whether it was deliberate.

Ah, they are doing it again more frequently. Deliberate then. Now they flicker green, red and white. Oh I get it: port, starboard and riding lights to match the sails. The flickering becomes manic and adds magenta and a rather fetching royal blue. I can’t be asked to wonder if that is supposed to be significant.

The dancers start to resemble a nest of ants that has been kicked over. Quick, quick, protect the cloth. I know! Turn it into a giant pupa, lashing and whipping the lines until it is a shrouded corpse ready to be thrown overboard – or hoisted into the flies. There it sways, blocking the escape stage right and creating an almost malevolent presence. The dancers jerk and twitch like actors in a film with frames missing or people under a strobe light.

The intervals between light and dark increase until – mercifully after a very long hour – the light and sound snap off and we can all escape.

Not for the epileptic.

In a week where there has been a collective outpouring of emotion in response to the masterful “Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red” at the Tower of London, this brand of introspective art seems all the more irrelevant. There is no doubt that it has taken a great deal of skill and artistic effort to accomplish but to what end? The artists work in their own little bubble. It is possible to gaze on and, with an effort, conjure up points of contact if only to survive the hour, but the artists take no responsibility for trying to communicate anything definite. Bring what you like to it, they won’t be pinned down to a commitment. They are not dedicated to beauty or politics or entertainment, just the cult of the totally abstract with their own narrow cul-de-sac.