Outlier, Life Story, The Grit in the Oyster, Polaris

Sadler’s Wells Theatre, London, UK; October 31, 2014

Charlotte Kasner

Crystal Pite's 'Polaris'  Photo © Chris Randle

Crystal Pite’s ‘Polaris’
Photo © Chris Randle

“See the Music, Hear the Dance” proved to be an ambitious quadruple bill that saw works by Karole Armitage, Wayne McGregor, Crystal Pite and Alexander Whitley are pitted against the mighty talents of composer Thomas Adès.

The undoubted highlight of Wayne McGregor’s “Outlier” was violinist Thomas Gould, whose breadth and depth of expression far outweighed that of the rather dull choreography. If only McGregor could stop making his dancers flap and fluster and take a moment to try to connect to his chosen score, then maybe the audience would have a chance of making an emotional engagement. As it is, there are nice moments, especially the batterie, and the only point where the dancers stop faffing like headless chickens when he allows one of them to snap into an attitude. The rest just passes by in a frantic jumble where the contact between the dancers often looks anything but consensual and seems non-existent between them and the music. More likely ‘glory in the music and don’t bother with the dance’.

Karole Armitage tries to crack the marvellously witty “Life Story”, in fact using text by Tennessee Williams, but it’s impossible not to compare with “Powder Her Face”. As a piece of theatre, it is a disaster. The dancers, not helped by David Salle’s ghastly, unflattering costumes, are completely overwhelmed by the soprano Claire Booth who writhes and wriggles in a floor length sequinned dress, while what little light is provided is concentrated on her and the piano. How paradoxical it is that when lighting designers have arguably the most powerful and varied lighting options that have ever been available at their fingertips, so many of them chose to engineer semi-darkness in cahoots with designers who insist on clothing their dancers in a dreary succession of underwear, often in the dingiest of colours.

The pas de deux struggles to keep pace with the singing and adds absolutely nothing to the enjoyment as the eye flicks occasionally away from the all-too-distracting piano and soprano. Attempting to illustrate the text would be gilding the lily anyway; instead, a competing struggle of a story is set up between the dancers who of course cannot convey the humour of listening to the lift rod the corner of the corridor outside die with the passions of the one night stand lovers coming to terms with the embarrassment of post-coital intimacy.

In “The Grit in the Oyster”, Alexander Whitley similarly fails to produce a pearl from his shellfish as he again is outfoxed by the rich and complex score of Adès “Piano Quintet”. At least here the dancers are given more of a chance as the musicians are placed upstage right and not over lit. However, the dance simply does not have a wide enough vocabulary to compare with the score and is ultimately forgettable.

The evening would have been worthwhile for just the music and the fabulous Britten Sinfonia as well as the pleasure of Adès himself playing the piano, but actually ends in triumph as finally one choreographer unlocks the secrets of fusing dance with the composer’s music.

In her “Polaris”, Crystal Pite not only understands fully the score, but goes beyond it and adds another dimension to this evocation of the north. An image of a snowy floor with shadows of fir trees is turned up to produce a backdrop against which 64 dancers sussurate, run and intertwine. It begins with a great mass like so many tadpoles in a pond, now moving as an ensemble, now allowing an individual to poke a face up.

Fabric whispers and knees cry crepitus as the mass creeps across the stage, suddenly to erupt into fleeing, falling individuals. Lighting turns them from grey to black to grey again and then produces a column of light up the centre of the back project leading thoughts to the brightness of the eponymous Pole Star.

This is a score that, for all its brevity, evokes the snowy northern wastes and cold distance of stars every bit as much as Vaughan Williams’ “Symphonia Antartica” does for the south. One can hear ice creaking and cracking and almost hear stars twinkling in razor sharp air. Pite enables her dances to embody those feelings and share them with the audience – surely a definition of theatre and of gesamkunstwerk.

Go for this last work but maybe listen to the rest at home or in the concert hall.