writers on dancing


New Talent?   Just Looking
“Curious Conscience” / “A Steel Garden” / “Swamp”
 Rambert Dance Company
Sadler’s Wells Theatre, London   
15 – 19 November, 2005
by John Percival
copyright ©2005 by John Percival

Rambert Dance Company will celebrate its 80th anniversary next year; a little prematurely, I think, since June 1926 actually saw not a new company but only the premiere of Frederick Ashton’s first apprentice work, made while he was still a student, given as a number in a revue and starring Marie Rambert and Ashton. (It was sold mainly on the name of Rambert’s famous playwright husband Ashley Dukes, who provided the story.) Subsequently students of the Rambert School took part in various recitals, plays, and an opera until in 1930 they had developed to the point of giving a complete matinee, followed by two two-week seasons with guest stars Karsavina and Woizikovsky. The success of these led to the foundation in 1931 of a small permanent company, called at first the Ballet Club.   

The present company makes much of continuing Rambert’s example of discovering and fostering choreographic talent, but there are one or two differences. They can’t be blamed for not sharing her luck in finding, right at the start, two incredibly gifted, world-class new choreographers (Antony Tudor following Ashton). But maybe we should be better off if they could maintain a continuing repertoire and if that rep could contain some older works, as used originally to be the case. However, the latest London season, just one week at Sadler’s Wells, did offer one slightly older production to go with its two new works, and that was for quite a few of us the show’s only redeeming feature.

The evening’s first work, I thought, was a disgrace. Rafael Bonachela is a former Rambert dancer just completing an appointment as associate choreographer. He has made nine ballets for Rambert dancers, some for other companies, and has created routines for pop singer Kylie Minogue and the group Primal Scream. That last gives you a hint of the style he favours, mixing mainstream entertainment dance with contemporary. The movement is customarily fussy, pushy, sexy, and the new “Curious Conscience” is no exception, full of grappling, bent shapes and waving crotches for 18 dancers—almost the whole troupe. The gimmickry of the action is reinforced by Alan Macdonald’s agitated design, with hangings going up and down at the back all the time, and by Lee Curran’s lights glaring in our eyes from the darkness. Now that’s fine if you enjoy it, as most of this audience seem to do, but not if you have it done to the accompaniment of Benjamin Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings. Bonachela and his colleagues claim that the music inspired them to thoughts of night and mystery, darkness, menace and uncertainty. To which my response is that what they show seems to have no real relationship either to the music or to the words of the six poems which Britten set.   We couldn’t even close our eyes and just listen, since the score had an unexpectedly feeble performance anyway.

The other new work was “A Steel Garden” by former Rambert director Christopher Bruce. He started with a score called “Dawn of a New Age” by the composer David C. Heath (they have worked together once before, in 1998), but Bruce wanted to take his inspiration from the qualities of the dancers as well as the music, and Heath adapted and extended his score as they went along. Its large use of percussion led Bruce and his designer wife Marian to invent an environment where metal rods hang from horizontal bars, with two small gongs at the back. As the eight dancers move through the hangings of this steel garden, or strike them with little rods they carry, they produce clangings that complete the accompaniment. Their actual dances, with exploratory duets, many twists, stretches and ranging lifts, grow from sometimes slow and measured entrances. It’s pleasant enough, but nothing terribly new.

So it was left for Michael Clark, despite his reputation for outrageous innovation, to provide the display of honest, unadorned and inventive pure dance that ended the performance. His “Swamp” as a creation for Rambert Dance dates from 1986, and even then it was partly derived from a smaller piece “Do You Me?  I Did” given on the initial programme of his first company two years earlier (which led Nureyev to invite him to create for the Paris Opera company). Clark changed “Swamp” to some extent when asked to revive it for Rambert last year, but it retains its original essence: eight performers on a bare stage, in varied entries to Bruce Gilbert’s rock music. The choreography owes at least as much to Cecchetti-style classicism as to Cunningham influenced modernism. Making strong demands on dancers and audience alike, “Swamp” reminds us how this company can look at its best, which has not often been the case lately.   

First: "Curious Conscience" by Rafael Bonachela. Photos by Richard Dean.
Second: "A Steel Garden" by Christopher Bruce. Photo by Anthony Crickmay

Volume 3, No. 43
November 21, 2005

copyright ©2005 John Percival



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last updated on November 21, 2005