writers on dancing


Dances Old and New

“Dark Elegies”/ “Judgment of Paris”/ “Momenta”/ “Constant Speed”
Rambert Dance Company
Sadler's Wells Theatre
May 24-28, 2005

by John Percival
copyright ©2005 by John Percival

Rambert Dance Company is proud to be the oldest dance company in Britain—a title it deserves whether we accept its claim to have started in 1926, when Marie Rambert persuaded her pupil Frederick Ashton to make his first attempt at choreography, or whether we more realistically date it from 1930 with the first continuing seasons and repertoire. And what a repertoire: already during the 1930s Rambert presented the earliest creations of Britain’s two greatest choreographers, Frederick Ashton and Antony Tudor, plus others by (inter alia) Ninette de Valois and Rambert discoveries Walter Gore, Andrée Howard, Frank Staff—all of them deserving more remembrance than they get nowadays. And that’s besides dancing Nijinsky’s “Faune”, Fokine’s “Carnaval”, “Spectre” and “Sylphides”, and extracts from “Aurora’s Wedding” and “Swan Lake”. Subsequent history includes a notably fine staging of “Giselle” and the first British productions of “La Sylphide” and “Don Quixote”, also introducing Robert Joffrey, Rudi van Dantzig, Glen Tetley, Anna Sokolow, Lar Lubovitch, Louis Falco, Jaap Flier, Dan Wagoner, Trisha Brown, Lucinda Childs, Martha Clarke and others to the British repertoire, besides dancing ballets by Paul Taylor and Merce Cunningham. And that’s in addition to continuing to try out and develop dozens of new choreographers, among whom Michael Charnley, Jack Carter, Norman Morrice, Jonathan Taylor, Robert North, Christopher Bruce, Ashley Page, Mark Baldwin and Didy Veldman are notable (not to mention increased opportunities given to three outsiders, Richard Alston, Siobhan Davies and Michael Clark). That’s a pretty wide range of work; can you wonder that some of us remember more exciting programmes from the past than most recent productions?

Anyway, Mark Baldwin, who took over as artistic director in 2002, decided for their latest London season to present two heritage ballets with two creations. Tudor’s “Dark Elegies”—perhaps his greatest work—had already been revived (as DanceView Times readers might recall) for Rambert at the Edinburgh Festival last September, when I found the movement lacked depth, and I’d say that is still mostly the case although some dancers cope a bit better than before, particularly Cameron McMillan in the third song of Mahler’s “Kindertotenlieder” which was the inspiration of Tudor’s tragedy. But on the whole I find today’s dancers tend to lack any real sense of character—and not only in this work but generally.

That also affects the other, newly added, Tudor revival, his “Judgment of Paris”. This is a slighter work, set in a seedy modern boite where three tarts compete for a customer’s attention and finally rob him when he collapses insensible from drink. It has been restaged by choreologist Sally Martin with help from former dancer and director John Chesworth, and obviously care has been taken to imitate, for instance, the weary way the women should walk, besides the details of their would-be seductive solos. Yet I found it didn’t quite ring true because these dancers aren’t accustomed to such characterisation. A special feature was the introduction of a painted setting, never seen before, based on the recently acquired sketchbook of Hugh Laing, Tudor’s partner who conceived the ballet, designed its costumes, and originally played the waiter. This décor makes visible the mirrors, lamps, trimmings and fittings which until now we had to imagine when the ballet was danced in blacks. But I’m not sure it’s an improvement: maybe too obtrusive and even too grand. We do now have the piano on stage, and Stephen Lade admirably carries off Kurt Weill’s music.

With the Tudor ballets came two new pieces. “Momenta” is a slight exercise by dancer-choreographer Mikaela Polley and composer Patrick Nunn, taken over from Rambert’s latest workshop season earlier this year. Polley distributes her dancers rather well about the stage, but that’s about all. “Constant Speed” is far more ambitious, having been commissioned by the Institute of Physics for Einstein Year, marking the centenary of the illustrious scientist’s three great discoveries. Baldwin decided to choreograph it himself as his first creation for the company since becoming director.

In a programme note, Baldwin claims that movement is an ideal medium in which to explore abstract notions. Neither the idea nor the application of it convinces me. You can see how Einstein’s ideas on the apparently random movement of microscopic particles, as they are jostled by molecules in water, could lead to the bizarre, jerky choreography and its acrobatic highlights: handstands, aerial cartwheels, etc. The relationship of Einstein’s photoelectric effect to the colouring of Michael Howells’s weird costumes is less clear, and I find Baldwin’s supposed link between the ballet’s disruptive speed changes and the theory of special relativity decidedly far-fetched. Rambert’s music director Paul Hoskins writes that he and Baldwin looked for music “that had some relevance to the Einstein stimulus”, and they apparently picked on the composer Franz Lehár because he was around in Vienna at the beginning of the 20th century. Well, this results in the affiliated London Musici getting some attractive pieces by Lehár to play, although what their relationship to Einstein might be is extremely vague. And whatever Hoskins says about the music matching “the glitter, sparkle and speed” of the ballet, I can’t pretend to find the dances truly musical. I have to add, however, that the company and Baldwin are well thought of by most of today’s London dance critics, so my lack of enthusiasm is a minority vote.

First:  "Judgment of Paris" by Antony Tudor. Photo by Anthony Crickmay
Second (and front page):  "Constant Speed" by Mark Baldwin. Photo by Anthony Crickmay

Volume 3, No. 21
May 30, 2005

copyright ©2005 John Percival



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last updated on May 30, 2005