Thursday, March 10, 2016

Rambert Spring 2016 (Theatr Clwyd, Mold)

Frames. Pic: Tristram Kenton

It's a question choreographers must be asked all too often: does an audience need to be aware of the inspiration for a piece of work in order for them to understand it, or get the most out of it? Can an observer come in to a dance piece completely cold and pick up what it's about just from watching it?

Kim Brandstrup, choreographer of Transfigured Night, believes firmly that "there is nothing you need to know in advance" of seeing this piece. He says that the audience is "watching people, human beings who will take you on a journey".

I disagree. If you reduce what dance is to merely human beings moving about, albeit in a beautiful way, then what you're essentially left with is legendary choreographer Merce Cunningham's pioneering yet challenging philosophy of discarding narrative and intent, and simply dancing for dancing's sake. Cunningham may have meant it was the performer who dances without intent, but without understanding of a choreographer's intent, surely the audience is being placed in that same unenlightened position.

The inspiration for Transfigured Night is so rich and particular that the audience must benefit from being aware of it in advance. As you watch the dance, you definitely pick up on the emotion of the story, but you would struggle to get the whys and wherefores. Narratively inspired by Richard Dehmel's poem Verklärte Nacht, which tells the story of a woman who confesses to her lover that she is pregnant with another man's child, Transfigured Night is set to the music of Arnold Schoenberg's revolutionary 1899 score of the same name. But Brandstrup has taken the story of the poem beyond Dehmel's source material, and divided the dance into three scenes - the woman's fraught anticipation of rejection after telling her lover; an idealised dream of acceptance and forgiveness by her lover; and finally, the reality, where the result is somewhere between the best and worst outcomes, as ambiguous as humans often are.

Transfigured Night. Pic: Johan Persson
Structurally, you read that the middle section is otherworldly, not on the same plain of existence as the other two, as Fabiana Piccioli's gorgeous lighting changes to a warm, melancholic hue of autumnal brown, bathing the stage in nostalgia. What is slightly confusing is that the lead dancers change for this middle section, although they still represent mirror images of the original characters.

Transfigured Night is a beautiful evocation of the poem and is a delightful visualisation of Shoenberg's music. The four principal dancers are magnetic, particularly Simone Damberg Würtz as the "scarlet woman". But I maintain that without foreknowledge of the various inspirations for the piece - whether it be Dehmel, Schoenberg or Egon Schiele - the audience can only see the choreography for what it is: human beings moving about. I'm sure Merce Cunningham would prefer it that way, but for me, if a piece has such rich inspiration, I prefer to know what it is.

The same goes for Didy Veldman's The 3 Dancers. As with Transfigured Night, it hijacks the title of the very thing which inspires it, in this case Pablo Picasso's 1925 painting The Three Dancers. The painting is reproduced in full in Rambert's programme, and gives meaning to the choreography witnessed on stage. Apart from the fact the dancers begin and end by recreating the figures' physical nature in the painting - all stretched tense limbs and clutching connections - the intervening routine is so obviously inspired by Picasso's work, both within and beyond the painting.

The 3 Dancers. Pic: Tristram Kenton
Cubism is the driving factor here. Veldman's intention was to apply Cubism to movement and choreographic structure, and in this she has overwhelmingly succeeded. The form and technique the dancers employ perfectly embodies the idea behind Cubism, of breaking down three-dimensional structures and analysing them from different, multiple perspectives. A simple set of a white square and a black square, intercut with shards of mirrored glass, evoke the art form perfectly, and in particular Crystal Cubism. The lunging and jabbing motions mirror both the set and the fractured visuals of a typical Cubist piece, and there's subtle use of mime too. The masculine competitiveness and jealousy which inspired Picasso is present in some aggressive choreography between the male dancers.

I loved Elena Kats-Chernin's musical score for the piece too, with Robert Millett's rousing drums, and its bursts of energy linked by calmer lulls. The score complements the dance as well as interprets the emotion in The Three Dancers.

Finally (although presented first at Theatr Clwyd) there is Alexander Whitley's Frames, which sees Rambert's dancers at work. Whitley says: "Confronted by a mass of materials, they come together and are put to task in their theatre construction site". This "mass of materials" is actually just a whole load of aluminium poles, one of which is delicately brought onto stage at the top of the piece by one dancer, soon followed by a wealth of dancers carrying - and then noisily dropping - scores of poles.

Frames. Pic: Tristram Kenton
Props in dance can be tricky. They can either encourage creative and unusual form and movement, or they can simply get in the way of a damn good routine. For Frames, it's both. The first half of the piece sees the dancers moving about the stage, apparently evoking echoes of industriousness and construction, but actually coming across as somewhat lacking in focus, and getting in the way of Whitley's dance content, which vies for attention.

It's only when the dancers start to properly interact with the poles by screwing them together and creating hinged frames, that the piece starts to come together conceptually. The dancers respond to the physicality of the frames, moving through them, as cantilevered extensions of the hinged structures, embodying the frames and the imaginary machinery. When Lee Curran brings down his stage lighting and the performers are lit only by the lamps attached to the frames, the routine really fulfills its potential, using shadow and silhouette to create some beautifully stylised forms. The brief moments where the dancers are seen one behind the other, shadowing one another, pivoting their frames in succession to create a spine of aluminium, are surely what Frames was intended to achieve all along.

The best thing about Frames for me was actually the music. Daniel Bjarnason managed to transport me back 40 years to when the late great David Bowie was in Berlin, breaking down musical barriers with Brian Eno. The discordant score is highly reminiscent of Bowie's Sense of Doubt from the 1977 Heroes album, that rhythmic atmosphere of foreboding and impending danger. Wonderful stuff, and in fact, the Rambert Orchestra under Jonathan Lo is the secret weapon behind all three of these pieces.

For most of its overlong duration, Frames is like watching a bunch of very focussed workers playing around with Meccano, complete with clumsy metallic bumps and clangs, and the graceless sight of dancers having to screw poles together in the background while others try to distract you up front. But the second half makes up for it as it finally comes into itself, and if there's one performer who stood out for me, it was Daniel Davidson - fluid, elegant, and in complete control, at one with his art.

In the programme, Whitley gives an almost impenetrable description of his intent with Frames: "Drawing us into a world of things, Frames provokes us to consider their permanence in contrast to the transiency of movement and how what is seen and experienced may be more than meets the eye". This demonstrates once more that an audience can only get the most out of art if they understand its intent, its inspiration and its purpose.

The stats
Choreographer: Alexander Whitley
Music: Daniel Bjarnason
Performers: Luke Ahmet, Miguel Altunaga, Lucy Balfour, Simone Damberg Würtz, Daniel Davidson, Edit Domoszlai, Liam Francis, Julia Gillespie, Brenda Lee Grech, Vanessa Kang, Adam Park, Stephen Quildan, Pierre Tappon
Transfigured Night
Choreographer: Kim Brandstrup
Music: Arnold Schoenberg
Performers: Luke Ahmet, Joshua Barwick, Daniel Davidson, Edit Domoszlai, Julia Gillespie, Brenda Lee Grech, Antonia Hewitt, Vanessa Kang, Jacob O'Connell, Patricia Okenwa, Adam Park, Stephen Quildan, Pierre Tappon, Stephen Wright. Duets: Miguel Altunaga, Simone Damberg Würtz, Liam Francis, Lucy Balfour
The 3 Dancers
Choreographer: Didy Veldman
Music: Elena Kats-Chernin
Performers: Joshua Barwick, Simone Damberg Würtz, Antonia Hewitt, Adam Park, Stephen Quildan, Pierre Tappon
Performed at Theatr Clwyd, Mold, March 9th to 12th, 2016. Performance reviewed: March 9th, 2016

Rambert website (retrieved Mar 10 2016)
Rambert on Theatr Clwyd website (retrieved Mar 10 2016)
Picasso's The Three Dancers (retrieved Mar 10 2016)
Verklärte Nacht by Richard Dehmel (retrieved Mar 10 2016)
Video of Frames (retrieved Mar 10 2016)
Video of Transfigured Night (retrieved Mar 10 2016)
Video of The 3 Dancers (retrieved Mar 10 2016)

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