Verve 13 in Frauke Requardt's Night Time. Photo Brian Slater

Verve 13 in Frauke Requardt’s Night Time. Photo Brian Slater

Robin Howard Dance Theatre, The Place, London; May 24, 2013

David Mead

It is right that postgraduate companies should be about the dancers, and in recent years some of the best performances have come from the dancers of the Northern School for Contemporary Dance in Leeds. There is enough in this year’s Verve programme to show that this year’s crop of performers is as good as ever. The men in particular were very good indeed. But to really show skills off, you also need good choreography, and for once that was decidedly hit and miss.

By far the strongest work of the evening came first. Frauke Requardt’s “Night Time” opens with a repeated image of one dancer held in the air reaching out towards a single light. Set against the black of the rest of the smoke-filled stage it is a beautiful and arresting image full of dream-like innocence. Subsequent movement is always fluid and precise. Mark Baker’s sparse lighting picks out individual dancers and small groups, the beams bouncing off Valentina Golfieri’s delicate costumes.

Slowly but surely, though, another world forces its way in. Things become darker. The dancers start to pull and throw each other around. The girls’ hair is now down and flies everywhere as heads thrash. Increasingly there is a sense that we are seeing an aggressive gang. No-one is leading, but everyone is subsumed by the power of the group. Paradoxically, however, the strident the dance gets, the less power it has and the less it holds the attention, with repetition of movement, a feature throughout, becoming very obvious.

There was more darkness at the beginning of Angus Balberine’s “Instructions to the Animal.” The opening scene is striking. Under a single light, a silhouetted figure slowly puts on a hat. Others are no more than vague shapes in the blackness. Thoughts of a steamy night in some tension-filled small town come to mind. And then the spell is broken. Smiles break out as the dancers engage in frenzied attempts to upstage one another, although the movement is less than inspired, with a great deal of thrashing and writhing around to little effect. There was text, although the spoken words were totally inaudible due to a lack of projection and the usual far too loud music. The fact that the most arresting sight was of one girl carefully and methodically grooming another’s hair speaks volumes.

James Wilton’s “Resurgence” at least has a few impressive moments. Set to chanting music by Om, Wilton plays to the dancers’ strengths, the choreography featuring much contact work as it draws heavily on capoeira and breakdancing. The dancers were excellent, especially the men. One male duet in particular was outstanding, the dancers chasing, rolling and lifting one another with remarkable smoothness.

Rounding things off, Ben Wright’s “Shuffle” takes as its starting point the idea that the word means to put things in a random order. The music was also selected randomly using an iTunes application. The outcome of that was a selection of eleven tracks running from Elgar and Bizet through Herb Alpert to Gerry and the Pacemakers and Franz Ferdinand.

The method of construction was all too obvious in the dance. Disorder was the order of the day. “Shuffle” is quirky, but it is also desperately superficial and aimless. The cast engage in various groupings, games and movement styles. There are some memorable moments, including that to Peggy Lee’s “Is that all there is?” and another tender and powerful duet between two men, but far too often there was little connection with the music, or come to that anything else. The audience loved it.