Jess Ryan-Phillips writes her first piece for Oxford Dance Writers, a review of Scottish Ballet’s powerful contemporary double bill, on show last week at Sadler’s Wells Theatre, London:

MC14/22 (Ceci est mon corps)
From the first moment, this production for twelve of the company’s male dancers by choreographer Angelin Preljoçaj created an intense world of ritual, religion and violence.  Pairs of dancers explored the fine line between embracing and causing pain, using exceptional control in displaying different states of the body: sometimes seeming so lifeless that they were being manipulated like rag dolls or puppets, sometimes moving explosively, fighting and flinging each other around the stage.  At some points there was an edge of humour, including a scene where one character refused to stop singing while increasingly extreme physical measures were taken to try to stop him. But because this humour came from a character being oppressed, one was aware of feeling uncomfortably complicit in this act.

There was a subtle shift at many points from the gentle, almost romantic interlacing of pairs of dancers into a seemingly inevitable violence, as if they couldn’t help but fight for dominance.  This gave echoes of the contemporary world where we see abuses of power designed to suffocate people’s spirit, and left questions about the nature of oppression and how it develops.

Tableaus which were reminiscent of religious paintings were highlighted by moments of stillness in both the movement and the soundtrack – these were effective particularly in the middle section where metal tables conjured a surreal modern take on the Last Supper.  The tables also called to mind cages and mortuaries, and the harsh lighting and lack of any colour other than the dancers’ pale skin and their black clothing gave a clinical, monochrome feel.  Overall it was interesting to see a piece that mixed moments of extremely deliberate, repetitive and ritualistic movements with explosive ones that were so organic and human that it was more like watching a choreographed brawl than a ballet.

The calling card of Crystal Pite’s distinguished and unique choreography is surely her way of working with large groups of dancers.  In this piece we were not disappointed – the animalistic, sinuous movements were magnified by the group of thirty-plus dancers on stage, bringing to mind insects, birds and even fish; the dancers worked as a flock or shoal, rippling in perfect synchronisation.  The sense of a gradual evolution and unfolding through the piece was counteracted with moments of sudden drama. A backlit tunnel was used to great effect to cut through the overall narrative, leaving us wondering who the elusive characters were who were prowling through the tunnel, and whether they were part of the underworld that was observed throughout the piece.

Another striking element was the absolute power of the dancers. At one point the women worked as if they were a single being, creating a wall of coiled strength that defied breaching (though attempts were made) while chanting in a hypnotic, almost threatening way.  Even in the moments where quartets and trios broke away from the larger group dynamic, the choreographies were expansive and the women’s movements equalled the men’s in their power. In the larger group work the men, too, worked as a whole, filling the whole of the stage and counteracting the lightness of the women’s pointe work with their solid foundations.

The set design, lighting, costumes and music all worked so seamlessly that they went almost unnoticed, in the best possible way. Pite shows that simplicity of colour, line and tonality can have breathtaking results, and the production as a whole was a thing of intense beauty.

Jess Ryan-Phillips

15th June 2017