Three of the four pieces shown by Phoenix Dance Theatre at the Linbury last week were new (or nearly new) works by Christopher Bruce, Ivgi & Greben and Darshan Singh Bhuller. This year has seen our dance companies commemorate the Great War and Bruce’s Shift (2006) seemed subtly to echo this theme. It opens with three women walking purposefully onto the stage, their hair tied up in headscarf turbans that immediately conjured up images of factory war work. Sometimes they and their male counterparts seemed to operate machines, at others, it was as if they themselves were the machines as they repeated movement sequences in canon. John B Read’s lighting design projected a shadow pattern of small rectangular panes onto the floor of the stage, as though light entered through a high window, adding a further geometrical dimension to the choreography.

The second Bruce work, Shadows (which had premiered four days earlier), was for me the artistic highlight of the evening. A nuclear family of four dancers[1] sits at a table upstage left, then one breaks free for an anguished solo before being gently carried back. Perhaps it was a child’s tantrum, perhaps something more ominous. Choreographed to Arvo Part’s beautiful Fratres for Violin and Piano, the dancers express a series of tensions, conflicts and reconciliations that might be personal or might have wider significance. At one point the furniture is overturned; a hideous family brawl or a metaphor for war? At the end the light falls for the first time on a hat stand that has been shrouded in in darkness at the back of the stage. The dancers put on coats and shoes and form a horizontal line walking towards the audience. They are leaving on a journey for a better life elsewhere, or to go to somewhere far worse …

Ivgi & Greben’s Document (2013) took the audience to an altogether different place. Against a soundtrack of mesmerising rhythm, the dancers worked in a long blue-green rectangle created by light and surrounded by shadow, which stretched from front to back of the stage. In grungy T-shirts and knee-length leggings, they arched and undulated their backs like waves and made circular movements with their torsos as they advanced and retreated seeming to access the deepest inner secrets of the soul. At one point all five dancers came towards us as a single body, their mouths wide open as if in Munch’s The Scream.

After this intense howl against the human condition, Darshan Singh Bhuller’s Mapping (2014) was enchantingly playful and witty. The lovely opening motif of a dancer clothed in white moving with, around and away from a small illuminated blue ball developed into images of whirling flying creatures as dancers spun across the stage seeming to swim against a blue sky. Then one dancer held a camera overhead, filming from above as the images were projected on the backdrop. It was clever but distracting, and then the technique came into its own: the dancers fixed a tape to the floor from stage left to right, and as they lay with their feet on it like a tight rope a camera high up in the flies filmed them from above. It was as if they accessed two elements simultaneously: projected on the back drop they seemed to be dancing upright on a narrow beam as they somersaulted, jumped and flew through the air, while they lay on the floor moving as if in an underwater ballet. It was graceful, imaginative and humorous.

The audience loved every moment of this short programme. The excitement and buzz in the auditorium was palpable, and the applause at the end was tumultuous.

Maggie Watson

30 November 2014

[1] Vanessa Vince Pang, Sam Vaherlehto, Andreas Grimaldier and Sandrine Moni