For Rambert’s 90th birthday year, the company has put together a typically varied, colourful and challenging repertoire of dances which differ according to which venue you see them in, and for their visit to the North Wales coast the company chose three pieces of suitable contrasts.
First up was Mark Baldwin’s Dark Arteries, an occasionally frenetic but always energetic piece accompanied by Tredegar Town Band. Matching contemporary dance with a brass band soundtrack might be seen as unconventional, and this eccentricity is carried through into both the score and the choreography.
Composer Gavin Higgins’s music is rarely euphonious in the traditional sense, eschewing melody for incident, quick bursts of one instrument or another. On the surface it sounds like a brass band tuning up before the big concert, but there’s much more depth to it than that. Bursts of it are like a John Williams or Bernard Hermann film score, other sections sound like the inner workings of a lunatic’s mind. Underpinning the entire thing is some rousing tuba-playing, adding weight and scale to the piece. Higgins’s score is nothing close to Brassed Off, but is built on its foundations simply by using the same instruments. It’s refreshing to hear a brass band play something so alternative (especially in Wales!).
Baldwin’s choreography seems empathetic to the music rather than synchronised to it, the dancers not so much moving to the music but responding to the feeling the score conjures. The music can be random and spidery, and so too can the choreography, which is sometimes elegant and structured, and at others violent and abrupt. There are some beautiful costumes for the female dancers by Baldwin and Stevie Stewart which emphasise the fluidity of some of the moves and phrases, while the body-hugging denim dungarees and blue shirts on the men accentuate their expressions too.
The piece communicates best in the gentler moments, where some of the dancers swap their dark blue outfits for bright orange and blue Spandex leotards and we see some more traditional moves of a more balletic nature. Baldwin talks in the programme notes about how the music is a series of crescendos, peaking in the middle with a magnificent tuba- and drum-fuelled cacophony, and how he wanted the dance to respond to that.
There are a lot of dancers on stage (upwards of 15) so there’s a lot going on to easily miss – the performers are not always dancing the same routines in unison – but this seems to work better in the evening’s closing piece, A Linha Curva, which boasts more than 25 dancers at a time. The busy choreography in Dark Arteries means the volume of dancers slightly dilutes the impact, and ultimately it is the stand-out score (which you’ll either love or hate!) which makes the greater impact.
Lucy Guerin’s Tomorrow is directly inspired by Shakepeare’s Macbeth following her work with theatre director Carrie Cracknell on a production of the play at the Young Vic in 2015. That earlier piece fused theatre and dance, culminating in an all-dance section, but here Guerin has taken the 400-year-old story back into a contemporary dance sphere.
To really get Tomorrow, you have to have a rough idea what Macbeth is about, and that’s where the audience’s familiarity with the source comes into play. If you’re unaware of the Macbeth story, you can still enjoy the piece, but it helps to have foreknowledge.
The stage is divided into two by a searing light beam. On the right side, seven witches (there were only three in Shakespeare’s play, but let’s go with it) represent the supernatural, ethereal, emotional aspects of the story, swirling and leaping and juddering like the harpies they are. It’s just how you’d imagine witches to dance, conjuring up their darkest powers through some kind of chanting, rhythmic display (anybody’s who’s seen the unnervingly twitchy choreography in David Bowie’s video for Blackstar will see reflections here). At one point the witches join hands and circle round, as if manifesting a cauldron.
On the left side of the stage, black-clad dancers perform the events of the narrative story in what Geurin’s programme notes describe as a “movement map of the play that runs in reverse order”. It’s not altogether clear why this runs backwards, and Geurin’s assertion that this section is devoid of overt acting isn’t strictly successful. The dancers are without doubt performing the play through mime and gesture, if not expression. At times it’s like watching a silent film, so clear are the performers’ narrative intentions. All dance is acting, and all acting is choreographed, and so the connections between the two arts are inextricably linked. And when you’re interpreting an established classical text, it’s hard not to see the acting within the dance.
That aside, the choreography is effective, with Adam Park taking the lead in an instructive, almost surly guise, and Lee Curran’s lighting is beautifully evocative, focusing the eye when needed and creating symbolic atmospheres. There’s some fabulously spooky, percussive music from Robin Rimbaud (aka Scanner) too.
Finally, the headline piece is Itzik Galili’s A Linha Curva (The Curved Line in Portuguese), an irresistibly energetic and exciting dance marinated in the music of Brazil. The dance brings the carnival atmosphere, colour and joy of Rio to the stage with choreography that looks free and easy, but is actually highly complex.
Talented (and very well-rehearsed) dancers make it look like a riot of self-expression in true South American style (although there might be some traditional African influence too), but the samba-infused choreography is actually very precise and exact. Key to this is Galili’s blocking and lighting, which creates chessboard formations on the stage, which the dancers harmonise with. Multi-coloured squares chop and change, arc and stretch, retract and double, as do the dancers, often in formation, sometimes freely. But if one dancer were to get out of step, or move where they shouldn’t, the entire piece would begin to crumble as confusion replaced routine.
Of course, the performance does not go wrong as this is Rambert, Britain’s national dance company, here led by a masterful choreographer with more than 70 works to his name. A Linha Curva is a rousing triumph of both content and spectacle, and is the perfect way to end a night of stylistically very different pieces. The stage is more crowded here than with Dark Arteries, but this time the cause is clear – this is a mass celebration, a condensed carnival of joie de vivre and sexuality, and by the time the curtain comes down, and we hear Adam Park’s final refrain to “see us in the bar”, you know you’ve seen the very best Rambert can show you.