Rambert Dance Company
Repertory Theatre, Birmingham
October 28, 2015

David Mead

Miguel Altunaga and Simone Damberg- Würtz in Kim Brandstrup’s Transfigured Night Photo Johan Persson

Miguel Altunaga and Simone Damberg-Würtz in Kim Brandstrup’s
Transfigured Night
Photo Johan Persson

It may have been Rooster that packed in the audience at the Rep on Rambert’s welcome return to Birmingham after a six-year absence, but it was Kim Brandstrup’s new and dark Transfigured Night that really took the eye.

Schoenberg’s score takes its title from Richard Dehmel’s narrative poem, but for his Transfigured Night, Brandstrup rather found inspiration in the paintings of Egon Schiele, particularly Self Portrait with Wally. References to the imagery in that work – a woman clinging to a man, both with eyes that drill right into you – appear again and again in the dance.

It always seems to be said that Brandstrup’s dance is cinematic (hardly surprising given his background), but it’s true. Transfigured Night is more than that though. It’s a work that features two contrasting duets that get to the heart of relationships, and in which he works wonders in magnifying the lush harmonies and melodies in the music, played outstandingly well by the Rambert Orchestra under music director Paul Hoskins.

In Brandstrup’s reading, Altunaga and Simone Damberg-Würtz meet in moonlight, she in a bright red strappy dress. There is clearly a dark secret between them. She throws herself at him constantly, clinging on as if trying to stop him leaving, and that he doing so would be the most terrifying thing imaginable. All the time, a corps dressed in black, and in the upstage shadows (there’s a lot of shadows; if you like Scandi-noir you are going to love the designs), echo the thoughts, moods and emotions of the couple.

A second couple (Hannah Rudd and Dane Hurst) appear. They initially reflect what went before, but soon this is different; a dream of forgiveness, of contentment. Appropriately they are dressed in white. There are shadows of Nijinsky’s L’Après midi d’un faun as Hurst shows more than a touch of innocence in his gentle gymnastics and showing off as he parades himself for his lady. There’s a hesitation about approaching. When he does, there’s much gentle nudging and pushing her with his head before he explodes the youthful joy and the couple dance a dramatic duet full of gorgeous arabesques and smooth lifts. Throughout there’s a sense of this is what was.

Although Brandstrup doesn’t follow the story in Dehmel’s poem, Transfigured Night has a similar theme of new life, or at least of a second chance of life. The end sees a return to ‘now’ and ‘what is’ as Altunaga and Damberg-Würtz patch things up in an uneasy compromise. It is the weakest part of the piece, and somewhat clichéd, and I’d have preferred something a tad more hard-edged, but I’ll forgive that.

Chloe Lamford’s designs are simple but effective. The action all takes place on a simple mirrored floor, with a pillar stage right. There are echoes here of Brandstrup’s new Jeux for New York City Ballet, where a similar pillar sits stage left. It’s a simple but clever device that creates different stage spaces, and which lighting designer Fabiana Piccioli uses to great effect to create strong shadows. Although Transfigured Night tells a different story, Jeux has a similar mood and feeling, and it’s hard not to draw comparisons. What’s important, though, is that the creative team take us right to the heart of the couple’s world and keep you hanging on to every moment once there.

Alexander Whitley is proving to be one of the hottest young choreographers around, equally adept at working with ballet and more contemporary vocabularies. The evening opened with his Frames, which looks even better than it did on its first run earlier this year.

Adam Blyde and Miguel Altunaga in Rooster Photo Tristram Kenton

Adam Blyde and Miguel Altunaga in Rooster
Photo Tristram Kenton

Right from the off, the stage becomes a construction site. Metalwork bars are delivered, danced with as straightforward props, then assembled and reassembled into various forms, each time reconfiguring the stage space. The opening is interesting but the work really takes off when four identical frames are made and the dancers divide off into four groups of three and a more defined structure starts to emerge. All the time, there is so much to take in. Whitley’s choreography is always inventive, although occasionally there are perhaps too many ideas going on, as near the end when the effect of a glorious duet (here danced by Altunaga and Rudd, who were both outstanding all evening) is somewhat diminished by too much else happening in the background.

A special mention too for Lee Curran’s lighting that frequently manages to create a melange of shadowy images on the back and side walls.

Rooster rounded off the evening in style. Christopher Bruce’s celebration of sixties music and youth is a modern classic and remains an absolute delight from start to finish. Altunaga is perfect as the leading cockerel, like the other men, forever preening himself. The women, of course, are not as daft as the chauvinist men think, and while generally indulging the men, treat all the posturing with the dry and mocking amusement that it deserves.

Each of the eight dances is different, but what’s so clever is that Bruce weaves them together so well; they never feel like separate entities. The strutting of Little Red Rooster contrasts with the formal dance-hall suggestions (and references to court dance) of the tender Lady Jane, and the sassy playfulness of Play With Fire in which Stephen Wright had a fling with Vanessa Kang. Everyone has a personal favourite. Mine has always been the gloriously modern balletic solo, Ruby Tuesday, here performed by Rudd, which finishes
in dramatic fashion as she throws herself into the arms of four men,
who toss her high, her long red dress taking flight as they do so.

Great stuff!