PhoenixDance Theatre in Didy Veldman's 'See Blue Through'  Photo courtesy Phoenix Dance Theatre, © Toni Nandi

PhoenixDance Theatre in Didy Veldman’s ‘See Blue Through’
Photo courtesy Phoenix Dance Theatre, © Toni Nandi

The Castle, Wellingborough, UK; October 14, 2014

David Mead

For the opening work of Phoenix Dance Theatre’s latest mixed programme, artistic director Sharon Watson dipped into the company’s extensive back catalogue. And what a plum she pulled out. Didy Veldman’s “See Blue Through” dates back to 2001, but it still looks remarkably fresh and inventive, packed to the gunwales as it is with interesting and sensuous choreography.

With Stijn Celis’ white costumes and Ben Ormerod’s silvery lighting against a dark background, “See Blue Through” is something of a black and white ballet. Veldman’s choreography is anything but monochrome, however. Her dance is sleek, even a tad sexy, and certainly structurally complex.

Veldman dives immediately into the undersea world, the work opening with the cast of seven standing around the stage, arms and limbs in perpetual motion as if fronds of seaweed wafting gently in an unseen current. Later, in a repeated motif, the same quality appears as the dancers lay on their backs, arms and legs in the air, again slowly billowing.

As duets and small group sections emerge, it doesn’t take a huge leap of imagination to see each of the dancers as a mysterious sea creature, scuttling and moving across a sandy seabed, occasionally meeting in a fascinating submarine ballet. A few angled mirrors overhead (also by Celis) sometimes give interesting perspectives on the dance below.

The highlight is a lengthy, complex duet towards the end, danced here by Ben Mitchell and Vanessa Vince-Pang. The couple continually twist and intertwine. Veldman makes some clever and mildly amusing use of the stretchy fabric from which the costumes are made throughout, and here Mitchell stretches his shirt right over Vince-Pang. She is a body in a body. Despite the gender reversal, it’s not a huge leap to read a reference into pregnancy. All round, great stuff, helped along by an excellent accompaniment: Alfred Schnittke’s “Sonata for Violin and Chamber Orchestra”.

Igvi & Greben's 'Document'.  Photo courtesy Phoenix Dance Theatre, © Tony Nandi

Ivgi & Greben’s ‘Document’.
Photo courtesy Phoenix Dance Theatre, © Tony Nandi

Premiered in February, “Document” is the first UK work by Netherlands-based choreographic duo Ivgi & Greben (Uri Ivgi and Johan Greben). Set to music by long-term collaborator Tom Parkinson that for the most part is reminiscent of relentless, throbbing machinery, it’s a dark, brooding piece with slightly threatening overtones.

There is much standing and moving in a tight group, the movement often extremely grounded, performed with knees bent. Anguish, torment and pain are to the fore: heads are held in hands, forearms go to foreheads and hands clasp the stomach. The dancers look like they are on autopilot. Eyes appear wide open but empty, as if there is nothing inside. What happened? How did they come to this state? The khaki green costumes, some with torn trousers, suggest an army connection. Are these survivors of some terrible battle, witnesses to some horror, or prisoners interned and without hope in some dark camp?

“Document” is powerful stuff. At 24 minutes it’s long enough to make its point, but short enough that it doesn’t outstay its welcome. It is, though let down somewhat by the end. A girl silently screams. Another is dragged away by two men as if dead, before everyone else slowly falls to the floor. It’s powerful and quite moving. But then it’s all spoiled. The two men resurrect themselves. They dance what turns out to be an interesting duet full of inventive supports, yet, it seems so out of place and doesn’t fit with what went before.

“Mapping”, by former Phoenix Artistic Director Darshan Singh Bhuller and also premiered earlier this year, was inspired by his father’s migration from India to Britain. It’s an interesting if occasionally chaotic work. There’s plenty of fast moving choreography that’s packed with hints as South Asian dance in among the largely Western contemporary vocabulary. The cast of eight are constantly on the move, entering and exiting at speed, the latter often with arms wheeling. There are scores of jumps and sharp changes of direction. As with the other pieces, it was superbly danced with the unison sections exemplary.

Phoenix Dance Theatre in 'Mapping'.  Photo courtesy Phoenix Dance Theatre, © Tony Nandi

Phoenix Dance Theatre in ‘Mapping’.
Photo courtesy Phoenix Dance Theatre, © Tony Nandi

But there’s a problem. Bhuller too often feels the need to rely on props or gimmicks, allowing them to become the focus of the action. While they’re all initially interesting, and may even raise a smile, they do get distracting. It’s a shame, because the rest of the choreography, the bodies in motion, is actually very good.

Typical is the opening, which features an interesting solo by Mitchell. Near the start he produces a blue-lit tennis-ball size globe – a reference, one assumes to the earth and the beginning of Bhuller’s father’s travels. Before long the ball is trundling around the stage, following Mitchell like a pet dog. It’s not long before everyone is watching that, rather than the human dancer.

Later, some of the action is filmed by a cameraman dressed entirely in black – but who still manages to stand out like a sore thumb. It’s projected onto the backdrop, presumably in an attempt to add another dimension to what we see. But it fails, and the annoying two or three second delay, and the appearance of camera symbols on the projection, only makes matters worse. It has to be said that some later camerawork is much better. A white strip is laid across the stage. Filmed from above, the dancers lay on the stage, making them appear on film as if they are upright, the strip becoming the floor. That allows for some amusing and often totally improbable balances, lifts and other moves to appear on the backdrop. It’s hardly a new idea, but it raised more than a few smiles.