Linbury Studio Theatre, Royal Opera House, London, UK; October 31, 2013

David Mead

The National Dance Company of Wales in Angelin Preljocaj's 'Noces'. Photo © Roy Campbell-Moore

The National Dance Company of Wales in Angelin Preljocaj’s ‘Noces’.
Photo © Roy Campbell-Moore

This year, the National Dance Company of Wales is celebrating its 30th anniversary. That’s something that’s probably passed most dancegoers by, especially those outside the Principality, for it always seems to be one of those ‘slightly under the radar’ companies that never quite gets the national recognition it deserves. And it does deserve it. The company regularly gets to perform works by noted choreographers and is packed with excellent dancers, as this year’s all too short London visit proved.

Highlight of the programme was Angelin Preljocaj’s “Noces”. Stravinsky’s score and the choreography demand absolute accuracy, and they certainly got it. The dancers, all conventionally attired with the women in short dresses and sensible shoes, the men slightly dishevelled in formal trousers, white shirts and ties, were quite simply fabulous. They were precise with Preljocaj’s always shifting formal patterns, and kept up the high-speed and high energy of his dance without exception.

Preljocaj follows the themes in the music and Nijinska’s original ballet by catching the trauma of marriage, although for him, the inspiration came not from an arranged Russian wedding, but from recollections of ceremonies in the Albanian community in Paris in which he was raised. Those memories are clearly very strong. His programme note refers how the bride, “offering herself in a back-to-front version of a funeral ritual…would walk slowly, her eyes brimming with tears, towards the consented rape.”

The National Dance Company of Wales in Angelin Preljocaj’s ‘Noces’. Photo © Roy Campbell-Moore

The choreography is as dramatic, vivid and unsettling as the dissonant harmonies and rhythms in the music, as Preljocaj adds his own layers of urgency and complexity. The individuality of the dancer is stripped away as the group becomes a symbol for the individual. This effect is magnified by much of the dance being in unison. All the time, there is a sense of the participants knowing their roles, and either knowing that they must be carried out or carrying them out instinctively.

“Noces” swings between delicacy and brutality. At first the women dance alone, the men on benches. But already there is a tension about proceedings. It is as if they all know, what is coming. Thoughts of “The Rite of Spring” leap into the mind as a woman is led on, her eyes covered by her hand. Is she another ‘Chosen One’?

As the dance proceeds there is alternating passivity and aggression between the sexes. Violence is never far away, especially by men towards women. There is much throwing of each other and leaping into arms. Yet, although the women are forcefully manipulated, they are also compliant.

As if to emphasise the compliance of all, both sexes mistreat five life size dummies in traditional white wedding dresses and veils. Yet, at first, the body language is very tender and caring as the women sit them on their laps, much ass they would a small child. In fact, they are merely being prepared for what is to come. Suddenly, one kisses one of the dolls before unceremoniously stuffing it under a bench. Later, both the men and women hit them and hurl them high into the air repeatedly. There is a sense of wild orgy that only increases as the five benches that form the only set are stood upright and wielded aggressively.

The penultimate scene has the women leaping repeatedly off the benches into the arms of their partners who wrestle them to the ground. It doesn’t take much to figure out what happens next. But again, they are willing participants, and far from complaining or seeking escape, they go round and repeat. And after all this wild abandon? The final image is almost macabre as each dummy ‘bride’ is hung on an upturned bench like a carcass in an abattoir. They have been used and are now nothing seems to be the stark and unforgiving message.

The National Dance Company of Wales in Eleesha Drennan's 'Virtual Descent'. Photo © Roy Campbell-Moore

The National Dance Company of Wales in Eleesha Drennan’s ‘Virtual Descent’.
Photo © Roy Campbell-Moore

The programme opened with award-winning House Choreographer Eleesha Drennan’s “Virtual Descent”, danced to an original score by Mark Bowden, part played live and part using a recording, and in which she envisages an imaginary future in which the dancers seek to recover our lost humanity.

It is full of rich and inventive movement, again danced with great intensity. Drennan uses a staircase stage right to great effect. It provided for some fascinating and innovative choreography as the dancers enter and exit. Much of the movement is robotic, with much use of stiff arms and legs. With the dancers in dark, tight-fitting costumes, the feeling is that we are watching primitive life; creatures coming to terms with each other and where they are. There is a sense of exploration, seen in the way they move around the stage and in the conversational nature of some of the sequences.

Joe Fletcher’s shadowy lighting is striking and helps enormously in creating a dark and rather uncertain atmosphere.

The National Dance Company of Wales in Stephen Petronio's 'Water Stories'. Photo © Rhys Cozens

The National Dance Company of Wales in Stephen Petronio’s ‘Water Stories’.
Photo © Rhys Cozens

“Water Stories” is a new commission from noted American choreographer Stephen Petronio, whose inspiration was the magical waterscapes of Wales. While the choreography is pleasant enough, and Petronio produces some interesting combinations and patterns, it was always going to be difficult to follow “Noces”, and sure enough, the work failed to make much of an impact.

The dance and the music (by Oscar-winning composer Atticus Ross, who created the score for “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” and “The Social Network”) are very smooth and seamless. While both certainly flow, they almost completely echo the tranquil reservoirs, estuaries and harbours seen in Matthew Brandt’s ever-changing slideshow. The dancers can be imagined frequently as water sprites, playing innocently on the bank.

Highlight of the piece is the well-constructed opening duet for two women, but overall, “Water Stories” could do with more accent and variation, with more reflection of the burbling mountain streams and waterfalls that are equally part of the Welsh waterscape. The fact that I was drawn constantly away from the dance to the projections says much. As an ensemble, there was less clarity than in the first two works, although individually there was much to admire.