National Youth Dance Company in Jasmin Vardimon's (in between) Photo Tony Nandi

National Youth Dance Company in Jasmin Vardimon’s (in between)
Photo Tony Nandi

Sadler’s Wells, London
September 4, 2015

David Mead

The National Youth Dance Company returned to the Sadler’s Wells stage last weekend in a feast impressive dance that was full of energy and commitment.

The first of Apex Rising two programmes revisited works created for the company by Jasmin Vardimon and Akram Khan, who were Guest Artistic Directors in 2012-13 and 2013-14, and a new piece by 2014-15 Artistic Director Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. The Vardimon and Khan pieces also reunited the original casts, many of whom are now full-time students at vocational schools.

Maybe it’s just because the dancers are now a couple of years older but Vardimon’s intense (in between) looks even better than it did in 2013.

It’s in her unique style of physical theatre. Right from the off, a typically Vardimon ‘all is not quite what it seems scene,’ it has her name deeply veined right through it. In that opening, the dancers appear to be suspended in mid-air, arms moving, bodies gently furling and unfurling as if a graceful flock of birds on the wing. After the curtain has crashed down at speed (guaranteed to make you jump) and lifted again, we see a forest of tree stumps that the dancers were previously using as supports, backed by a photo of a birch forest that manages to suggest space while simultaneously feeling claustrophobic

More memorable images come thick and fast. The cast each stand atop a block, very gently swaying as if being brushed by a gentle breeze. Again the image is shattered suddenly, this time by two members of the cast who turn woodcutters and ‘chop’ them down one by one. And yet, they always try and retake their position; the power of the group versus that of the individual.

(in between) is very much an ensemble piece, and Vardimon’s choreography relies hugely on numbers and repetition for effect. But it is very, very effective.

The Rashomon Effect Photo Tony Nandi

The Rashomon Effect
Photo Tony Nandi

Directed by Akram Khan but choreographed by Khan company member and choreographic assistant Andrej Petrovič, The Rashomon Effect was inspired by Akira Kurasawa’s film of the same name. Khan’s influence on the choreography is very marked. If you hadn’t been told you would think it was one of his pieces.

The Rashomon Effect deals with the nature of truth, and how the same event can be understood by witnesses in very different ways. In the film, that event was a rape and murder. In Petrovič’s dance this idea is seen through the way individual dancers emerge from and respond to the crowd, before returning to the fold.

The dance of the soloists invariably suggests a conflict with the mass. They are all impressive. One solo, from one of the young men, includes with plenty of hip-hop influence in which he flips, spins and whirls to great effect. Sometimes this is controlled, but at others he seems buffeted by some unseen outside force. There is often a sense of pain, of wanting to hide as he curls into a foetus position as if trying to protect himself.

Another figure emerges for an equally demanding dance, before a girl becomes the focus of the crowd’s attention. They persecute her, pulling her in all directions, eventually drawing into the writing mass of bodies that is the human swarm.

A special mention here for the superb score, all pounding percussion and the buzzing of bees, by Beautiful Noise (Vincenzo Lamagna).

Both the Vardimon and Khan/ Petrovič works are essentially big ensemble pieces with large numbers of dancers on stage most of the time. While that does amplify the effect of the movement, it can be overpowering. You can have too much of a good thing. Numbers can be used to hide things too, and despite The Rashomon Effect in particular having some solo moments, I longed to see more of the dancers as individuals.

Cherkaoui’s Frame[d] is a curious beast, a collage stitched together from pieces of his previous works, Babel(words), TeZukA, Puz/zle and Loin (am I the only one who finds messing with syntax like this rather unnecessary and tiresome?). Vardimon did something similar to great effect with Yesterday a few years ago, but to somewhat greater effect.

Frame[d] Photo Tony Nandi

Photo Tony Nandi

It is Babel(words) (choreographed with Damien Jalet) that provides the central focus for the piece, Anthony Gormley’s five large steel frames, each cube-shaped, but each a different size. As the work unfolds these are manoeuvred with considerable skill by the dancers, constantly changing the stage architecture. The structures glide, lift and tilt so smoothly that almost appears they are dancing too. They do at one point become the eponymous tower, but also morph into close-fitting cages, larger prison-like cells, and havens of peace. One of the best sequences sees four rotated around a central fifth while solo dancers perform inside each.

At times, though, Frame[d] is a triumph of design over dance content. Again, there is a tendency to use huge numbers of dancers all the time. It’s an understandable temptation with such performing ensembles as this, but it’s also unnecessary. Still, at least here, you could see individuals in the crowd. The stand-out dance moments invariably came when there were things were less busy, including a very good extended gender-neutral duet between one of the men and one of the women.

A complex and lengthy spoken commentary on the nature of particles and how they connect and interact also proved an amusing duologue. Speaking absolutely in sync with one another for that length of time is tricky indeed, and the couple did remarkably well, only getting slightly out of sync for a couple of short moments.

A second programme the following evening saw the company joined by the National Youth Dance Companies of Scotland and Wales, plus Groupe Grenade – Josette Baïz from France.