Frames, Four Elements, Dark Arteries
Sadler’s Wells Theatre, London, UK; May 12, 2015

David Mead

Rambert Dance Company in Alexander Whitley's Frames.  Photo Tristam Kenton

Rambert Dance Company in Alexander Whitley’s Frames.
Photo Tristam Kenton

This Spring’s visit to Sadler’s Wells by Rambert sandwiches a reprise of Lucinda Childs’ Four Elements between two new works by Alexander Whitley and artistic director Mark Baldwin.

Whitley is fast making a name for himself as a choreographer and it’s easy to see why. Of the new works, it’s his Frames, here getting its London premiere, and a continuation of his collaboration with visual artists Tuur Van Balen and Revital Cohen, that takes the honours.

On a bare stage framed by three white walls, the cast of twelve gather and assemble metal rods into jointed structures which they dance with and around, under and over, and rearrange to create new spaces. Small lamps are added, creating new vistas of light and shadow, before, finally, everything is formed into one metallic sculpture that is hoisted above the stage.

Aside from the drawn out opening minutes when we see the frames and so on carried onto the stage, the dance is full of interest. In his opening solo, Dane Hurst dances with considerable poise and style with a six-foot rod, deftly manoevering and manipulating it, sliding and juggling it with his body in a manner reminiscent of the most graceful of rhythmic gymnasts.

Frames.  Photo Johan Persson

Photo Johan Persson

The ideas come thick and fast. The rods are used a staffs, ballet barres (one moment that is a mistake), barriers and much more, but Whitley never forgets that dance is about real bodies too. There are moments when the choreography is perhaps too busy, but time and again he shows he knows how to handle groups as he forms the cast into interesting formations. Among the ensemble work are a number of impressive duets, the best of which is a sleek and sophisticated number for Miguel Altunaga and Hannah Rudd.

I’m not sure I would want to merely listen to the commissioned score from Icelandic composer Daniel Bjarnason, a mix of various scrapings and other noises that become increasingly shrill, and to be honest painful, but it makes for a good accompaniment to the dance. Van Balen and Cohen’s costumes, simple white shirts and beige trousers all round, are elegant, easy to move in, easy on the eye, and show off the dancers’ gorgeous lines a treat.

When the curtain went up on the world premiere of Baldwin’s Dark Arteries, a collaboration between Baldwin and composer Gavin Higgins, the sight of the all the gleaming brass instruments of the Tredegar Town Band positioned upstage on tiers prompted more than a few oohs from the audience. Sadly, despite often suggesting it might be about to get there, the dance only rarely makes the same connection.

Noted conductor Sir Thomas Beecham said once that, “Brass bands are all very well in their place – outdoors and several miles away.” Not too many would agree with that, and Dark Arteries proves their music can work with contemporary dance too. For the most part Higgins’ score is not the easiest to listen to. It’s not the sonorous warm music usually associated with brass bands. It’s altogether sharper stuff, packed with complicated texture and rhythm. And the musicians dealt with it magnificently.

Mark Baldwin's  Dark Arteries.  Photo Johan Persson

Mark Baldwin’s Dark Arteries.
Photo Johan Persson

The dark arteries of the title come from a reference in Mervyn Peake’s evocative poem, Rhondda Valley, and are, of course, the coal seams themselves. The band and the dance sit amidst Michael Howells’ polished steel set that, although clean and shiny, indeed suggests descent into a coal mine. And it is from the region’s mining history, so important in its sense of identity (as indeed are its brass bands), that the dance is born.

Dark Arteries falls into three parts. The first has a sense of solidity, of a society strong and at one with itself. Baldwin fills the stage with lines of dancers. The women in particular frequently move crouched, close to the ground. Add in the effect of their long dark blue skirts (the men are in similarly dark shirts and trousers) and it’s impossible to escape thoughts of Martha Graham. Then things start to get discordant. The movement becomes increasingly gestural. There’s a lot of running, and shaking of fists. But hope eventually blossoms as peace returns (the music gets noticeably hymnal), and the world seems a brighter place, all reflected in a stark change to unitards for some, the men in bright orange, the women in blue, Baldwin’s best choreography is here, including a sensual duet for two men.

Julia Gillespie and Miguel Altunaga in Dark Arteries.  Photo Johan Persson

Julia Gillespie and Miguel Altunaga in Dark Arteries.
Photo Johan Persson

Sitting between Frames and Dark Arteries, Lucinda Childs’ Four Elements fared much better than when last danced by Rambert at the Wells. On that occasion it shared a programme with Merce Cunningham’s Sounddance. Too much alike perhaps?

Four Elements appears a light, almost frothy work; and it and Gavin Bryars’ score combine to make a light, easily digested centre course. But it also has a sense of unease about it, helped along by Jennifer Bartlett’s slightly eerie, mysterious four backdrops – images from which are reflected in the dancers’ unitards – including the figure of death.

Water gets things off to a quiet, beautiful start, with each dancer seeming to be a reflection of another. Most absorbing of the four sections is the second, Earth, in which the four female dancers circle each other and turn in any number of balletic ways. Vanessa Kang stood out. Air, for only the four men, while full of leaps and jumps goes on far too long, before Fire brings things to a close.