Sadler’s Wells Theatre, London, UK; June 5, 2014
You can tell when an audience is totally transfixed by dance: there’s a remarkable silence and stillness in the theatre. No-one coughs, no-one whispers to their neighbour, no-one takes a slurp of water; no-one has anything but eyes for the stage. It was like that at Sadler’s Wells for Russell Maliphant’s latest “Still Current” programme. Maliphant has long been the master of the austerely beautiful, and that description is certainly true of this hour and a half or so of solos, duets and trios.
Best is “Still Current” itself, a duet for Maliphant and Carys Staton. It’s hard to believe that Maliphant, who dances with such power and grace, is now 52. Staton too has remarkable elegance, but hers comes with a beautiful fragility. Both were quite outstanding the whole evening, as indeed were Dickson Mbi and Thomas Gülgeç in the other works.
“Still Current” is about separation and togetherness. It’s typical of Maliphant’s approach to dance and of “finding the calm centre to the attack,” as he puts it. When the couple are together, the choreography is full of entwined bodies, twisted embraces and supports, and gentle but high lifts in which Staton seems to hang in mid-air as time is suspended. The way she slipped around his body and over his shoulders time and time again, and with apparently such little effort, was remarkable. It’s incredibly complicated, and yet, they made it look so easy; as natural as breathing. Apart there is much reaching out, as if seeking the one who is not there. The soundtrack, by Mukul, is loud and has hints of violence as what sounds like helicopters and gunfire are heard.
Like every other piece on the programme, Michael Hull’s lighting is absolutely integral to the dance. As elsewhere, his use of dim overhead and tightly focused spots throws the rest of the stage into darkness. Its very sparseness emphasises the moving bodies as it draws us in from that surrounding blackness. The light picks out the upper body and arms in particular; every movement, every curve, every flexion of every limb, is there in all its glory. It’s all very Maliphant-Hulls of course, but it remains quite startling. The way it all comes together is quite, quite mesmerising, and utterly beautiful.
“Still”, which opens the programme, is largely a showcase for Mbi, whose main styles are popping and bugaloo. Hull’s lighting suggests bars and a prison in which Mbi’s wonderfully toned torso constantly stretches to Armand Amar’s percussive music. The dance takes on new meaning when Staton appears, her softness and flowing white costume contrasting dramatically Mbi.
The other new piece, “Traces”, begins as a solo for Gülgeç, whose opening dance with a slender 3-foot stick that moves all around him is all circularity. Time and again, huge arcs are traced in the space. When Maliphant, and then Mbi, join him (with similar sticks) their physically larger presence seems to rein the dance in somewhat. Suddenly, there also seems to be an air of malevolence. Gülgeç’s stick seemed like a toy; Maliphant’s in particular seemed more like a policeman’s baton – and one ready to be used.
Completing the programme are two of Maliphant’s award winning older pieces. “Two” was made famous by Sylvie Guillem, who will be reprising the work at the Coliseum at the end of July. Forever trapped in her two-metre square of light, it is as if Staton is trying to escape the invisible wall that is holding her, her arms reaching, her fingers feeling for the way out.
If anything, “Afterlight (Part 1)”, Maliphant’s meditation on Nijinsky, originally made for the theatre’s “In the Spirit of Diaghilev” programme in 2009, is even better known. Inspired by images of Nijinsky recalled by Maliphant that show a twisted torso spiralling into an outstretched arm, and Nijinsky’s own drawings that overflow with huge arcs, it’s a remarkably beautiful yet sad dance. There are occasional bursts of energy, but for the most part Gülgeç’s body gently curls and rotates in a pool of light. Maliphant has always insisted the work is not narrative, but it’s hard to escape the overwhelming sense of yearning, perhaps for freedom, perhaps to recapture what is now in the past and lost. Erik Satie’s “Gnossiennes” are the perfect accompaniment.