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A Context to Pepperland

Posted on April 2, 2019

Call me old-fashioned, but when I go to see dancing, I want to see it. Regardless of the subject, if you can’t distinguish the bodies and their arrangement in space, why watch them? I also want the movement to hang together somehow. Improvisation has its uses, but apparently random activity often resembles incomplete ideas. If a choreographer can’t clarify his purpose and direct our focus, we might as well watch people in the street.

The opportunities for young choreographers to display their efforts are few and far between, so anyone trying to promote them deserves our appreciation. Yet Diana Vishneva’s Context Festival, a showcase of contemporary Russian dancemakers that launched its international tour at Sadler’s Wells, promised more on paper than it delivered on stage.

I’d never heard of Konstantin Keikhel, Pavel Glukhov, Olga Vasilyeva or the collaborative team of Dor Mamalia, Dariusz Nowak and Vladimir Varnava, and their four short pieces, which began the programme, were nearly indistinguishable. As if some external force had imposed identical conditions on each artist’s imagination, they all opted for unvarying dynamics, knotty lifts, soft elasticity, poker faces and dramatic images of no cumulative significance, presented in black or grey costumes and dim lighting.

In one composition, the dancers trundled a table around on their heads; in another, a brief pas de deux unfolded beneath lips glued in a kiss. Glukhov deployed a length of pipe for line and balance in his ingenious male duet, Light in November, but most of the discernable sequences in these selections could have jumped from one work to another without anyone noticing.

A political journalist commented recently that those running for office used to pitch carefully crafted policies at potential voters; today, they come to the campaign trail dispensing slogans. “Everyone,” he said, “is dabbling.” Has this happened to choreography? What example are these young Russians following?

They’re certainly not looking at Pepperland, Mark Morris’ 2017 tribute to the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967), which contains just about everything that choreographic fashion currently ignores. A saucy tribute to the Swinging Sixties, the piece rebounds off seven of the band’s celebrated songs, refashioned in a jazzy new score by Ethan Iverson, transforming them into a jubilant mix of popular dances, ballet, stylised mime, complex invention and natural insouciance, spiked with a pinch of mysticism. Set against a stage-wide crumple of silver foil and the chromatically contrasting cyc behind it, Pepperland plays with hot colours, cool manners and geometric patterns of such intricacy that they seem to create optical illusions.

It begins and ends in a spiral, expanding like a galaxy of stars. Bracketed by that serene effect, marches jostle with mazurkas, canons overlap and intersect, gender-blind partners meet as equals, music takes shape; at one point, a chorus line melts into crossing curves that reverse direction and, like nature operating backwards, reform as a single line. Challenged to keep up, I couldn’t take my eyes off the stage, and the more closely I paid attention, the more I found in the dance and the familiar songs.

Years ago, at a Q & A during a long tour, a viewer said to Merce Cunningham, “I’m so glad they brought you. Ordinarily all we are is entertained.”

He could have been talking about Morris’ choreography right now.

Pepperland is currently on tour in the UK. Click here for venue details

Pictured: Dancers of Mark Morris Dance Group in Pepperland. Photographs by Mat Hayward.

 

Barbara Newman’s books about ballet include Grace under Pressure; The Illustrated Book of Ballet Stories for children; a volume of interviews, Striking a Balance, and its follow-up, Never Far from Dancing. She has written for Dancing Times since 1984 and served as the dance critic for Country Life from 1990 to 2016. She archives all her work at http://barbaranewmandance.net

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