Sadler’s Wells Theatre, London, UK; May 20, 2014

David Mead

Estela Merlos and Adam Blyde in Lucinda Childs' 'Four Elements'.  Photo © Benedict Johnson.

Estela Merlos and Adam Blyde in Lucinda Childs’ ‘Four Elements’.
Photo © Benedict Johnson.

Contemporary dance emphasises the new, but from time to time it’s good to look back. In their first London season since moving to their new home on the city’s Southbank, Rambert do just that in an evening that, as they put it, celebrates the ‘ABC’ of contemporary dance. Actually it was two Cs, but when the programme is this good, who’s counting?

Lucinda Child’s “Four Elements” comes in four sections (Water, Earth, Air, Fire) and owes much to the late, great Merce Cunningham. It’s minimalist, somewhat cool and detached, and full of all those sharp angles, triplets and tilts that Cunningham so loved. It slowly builds. At times the patterns bring to mind surface insects skidding cross the top of an otherwise still pond. It’s all elegant and pleasant enough, but little sticks in the memory except Jennifer Bartlett’s colourful designs with their repeated playing card and skeleton motifs. Gavin Bryar’s score rolls along but is equally forgettable.

There are subtle changes in tempo between each section, Water is slow, Earth is a little faster and full of lilting triplets, and so on, but even so, the movement vocabulary in each is so alike that the elements tend to rather blur into one another. The exception to all this is Air, a perpetual motion of a dance for the four men who repeatedly cross the stage, with the occasional unexpected sharp about turn and return from whence they came thrown in for good measure. The dance here is a clever mix of American modern dance and ballet, the same basic phrase being varied in multiple ways.

Miguel Altunaga in 'Christopher Bruce's 'Rooster' Photo © Hugo Glendinning

Miguel Altunaga in ‘Christopher Bruce’s ‘Rooster’
Photo © Hugo Glendinning

Krill Burlov and Estela Merlos in 'Rooster'.  Photo © Hugo Glendinning

Krill Burlov and Estela Merlos in ‘Rooster’.
Photo © Hugo Glendinning

Christopher Bruce’s “Rooster” has been a Rambert audience favourite right from its company premiere back in 1994. And why not? It’s uplifting, foot-tapping and hugely entertaining. In short, it’s a real crowd-pleaser. Incredibly, it’s been 13 years since it was last seen on a British stage, but at last it’s back – hurrah!

Danced to eight Rolling Stones songs, “Rooster” is Bruce’s take on the 1960s. It’s full of strutting, preening boys desperate to impress the girls – girls who, on the whole, are desperately underwhelmed by them all, and who often get the last laugh.

The dance does sometimes reflect the words of the songs. I recall watching Bruce set this on Ballett Basel a few years ago, and how he explained that every gesture has meaning. That comes across here too, but where he really scores is getting underneath the lyrics and revealing the spirit of them and the music.

Perhaps time has affected the memory, but the opening dances didn’t seem to have quite the richness or swagger that I recall. But the cast soon got into their stride, and by the end, I and the rest of the audience, were revelling in the tidal wave of energy and the wonderful music of songs such as “Paint It Black” and the closing, rollicking “Sympathy for the Devil”.

Although it’s really a dance about the men, a personal favourite has always been “Ruby Tuesday”, the first part of which is a female solo, danced spiritedly here by Antonette Dayrit. Even here, in one of the more reflective songs, Bruce manages to find a sense of fun when her dance is interrupted and she is tossed around by three of the men. Elsewhere, Miguel Altunaga got cockier and flashier as it went on, while Dane Hurst won the prize for being cool and laid back.

“Dutiful Ducks” by Richard Alston is a five-minute solo that comes from that period when he experimented with text-sound compositions, of which the best known is probably “Rainbow Bandit”. It’s dancing on the edge; all classical shapes thrown off centre by Charles Amirkhanian’s stuttering repetition of the title (with the ‘dootiful’ spoken in an American accent) yet insistent rhythms. Dane Hurst danced with authority.

To round things off it was back to ‘C’ and Merce Cunningham’s “Sounddance”. Performed against Mark Lancaster’s deep gold ruched curtain and to David Tudor’s cacophony of electronic gurgles, static and shrieks that reverberate around the auditorium, this is Merce in joyful mood.

Merce Cunningham's 'Sounddance' Photo © Chris Nash

Merce Cunningham’s ‘Sounddance’
Photo © Chris Nash

As the dancers appear one by one through a gap in the centre of the curtain, all appears to be chaos. In fact, it’s anything but. “Sounddance” is tightly and beautifully structured. Before long, all ten dancers are skittering hither and thither, occasionally joining together in mini-ensemble sections or short pas de deux, before zipping off on their own once more. Although there are clearly connections with the earlier Childs’s work, Cunningham produces inventive pattern after inventive pattern in a complex, relentless, non-stop dance. There’s little chance to draw breath until, all too soon the dancers disappear, again one by one, back through that crack in the curtain.

Rambert’s dancers looked in top form throughout. The move to the Southbank seems to have given the company a renewed energy and buzz. Don’t miss them when their UK tour starts at the end of September.

Rambert continues at Sadler’s Wells to May 24. For details of the 2014-15 tour, see