Welcome to Jordan Lian, MPhil student at Oxford University, writing for Oxford Dance Writers for the first time. Jordan is studying the ballet history of the Slavonic region, and his current MPhil thesis is on Nijinska’s choreographic leadership of the Polish National Ballet 1937-1938. Here he reviews the recent triple bill by Rambert performed at Sadler’s Wells.

Friday’s Rambert performance started on a high note as Imre and Marne van Opstals’ Eye Candy, reflecting on the pains and pleasures of inhabiting the human body and originally premiered online in July 2021, generated an electric buzz. The piece opens with a dancer who drags out a mysterious package—a tranquil female body. Yet she comes alive as her peers onstage manipulate her joints and limbs to stretch, contort, and fold her corpus. In this sequence, the van Opstals challenge us to think of the degree of free will we possess in our own bodies; we watch as the puppet’s body is moulded by many hands until she moves autonomously. The choreography comprises mechanistic movements as the dancers jab, hammer, and drill gesturally, yet these high-frequency movements betray a lack of control despite the tension held in the dancers’ bodies. 

Amos Ben-Tal arranges a poignant guitar number, over which a male voice croons, and the audience feels the intimacy of the dancers onstage. We are brought closer to the Rambert dancers as we hear the pitter-patter of their feet as they move. Through the fleshly sounds of their skin and landing feet, the body’s song is amplified. The dancers’ bodies collide and smack as they weave amongst each other, reminding us all that our bodies are vehicles for connection. Regardless of the movement—fitful or passionate—the Rambert ensemble exhibits a corporeal vulnerability as the choreographers challenge us to think of why and how we inhabit our individual, human shells.

Intermission was aptly concluded with a humorous announcement: Comfort was announcing her own death. In his reimagining of the Cerberus myth, Ben Duke’s eponymous piece is comical and witty, his staging clever and genre melding as the dancers dance to their death.  A percussion set in the upstage corner provides a beat that motivates the dancers to go towards the afterlife. Yet, the protagonist is a stagehand—presumably, also Comfort’s lover—who warns the dancers to avoid stage left; but to no avail. He is comedically translated from Italian by his colleague, Daniel, who attempts to help prevent more deaths. Yet, the plot gets lost once an electronic dance tune courses through the stage and the dancers strut in line. Occasionally dancers break past the plane, and small intervals of virtuosity ensue, but why is Daniel joining in?  This passage seems like virtuosic dancing just for the sake of movement: the gesture neither adds to the narrative nor communicates anything of substance. Daniel returns to translating before reading an instruction manual that states that the hero cannot look back until he and Comfort exit the underworld. A guitarist and opera singer appear in the other upper right corner, as they accompany the dancers who are looped into a rope that our hero pulls. The music makes the scene more remarkable than it is; Cerberus concludes with the hero just turning back, the rope slackens, and the stage goes dark. Overall, the piece had promise as it presented live music in conjunction with the dancing, but the comedic narrative dissipated quickly. Cerberus opened as wittily intellectual and innovative, but ended a bit emptier than one would have hoped.

I was very excited for the final number—Alonzo King’s Following the Subtle Current Upstream. As a Northern California native, I was very pleased to finally see King’s choreography in the UK. However, it felt that the programming order was likely wrong in this case. While King’s number was emotional, harmonious, and well-composed, it had a serene energy that was starkly different from the previous pieces. The group numbers were executed successfully, but the first solo numbers seemed a bit flat in execution. King’s choreography features extended lines and swirling spins, but they lacked a sense of enlargement and vigour on the Rambert dancers. It certainly wasn’t for lack of skill; once a group sequence ensued, small sparks of liveliness returned. With tinkering rhythms and some light percussion, the female soloists in the second half of the number finally delivered the vivacity and energy that King’s choreography deserved. It seems that the turn was contagious, as the dancers onstage rallied communal energy to invigorate the theatre. King’s ballet is ‘about how to return to joy’; in the beginning, Rambert was certainly searching for it, but, in the end, it wasn’t conclusive that it had been found.  The piece was pleasant but lacked in execution—particularly when considered against the percussive verve that was truly captivating.

Unfortunately, the night descended slowly although each piece had a full gamut of redeeming qualities. The Rambert dancers always demonstrated their physicality and musicality; yet the programming seemed to fall short as the order just truly didn’t make sense. I think a reversal in order would have resulted in a buzzing exit from the theatre.  Perhaps next time.

Jordan Lian

20th May 2022