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Barbara Newman on “Snapchat” choreography

Posted on March 27, 2017

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The so-called “interactive generation” is currently addicted to Snapchat, the messaging app that allows you to post anything you like in the knowledge that every post vanishes automatically after it’s viewed. One sociologist has called it “a way to connect without judgment,” a phrase you could now apply, surprisingly, to dance and its public. Have you noticed how often recent choreography fills space with dances that disappear without trace? Most of them seem to exist to pass the time, and any casual bystander can take them in without even considering a response.

I thought about Snapchat when I saw Julie Cunningham’s troupe of four artists, including herself, at the Barbican. A sliver of focused energy on stage, Cunningham danced with the Merce Cunningham and Michael Clark companies before turning to choreography, so it’s understandable that her first “full-length production,” which probably means longer than a one-act dance, showed their powerful influences, featuring the cool authority, long stretched positions and controlled balances we easily associate with their work.

Returning apparently deals with gender, nature, the cosmos and spirituality; “I’m very interested,” we heard, “in the feminisation of the deities.” To Be Me supposedly interprets Kate Tempest’s poems about Tiresias, a blind soothsayer transformed for seven years into a woman. As far as I could tell, neither dance explored these subjects in movement, so despite clear execution and neat angled phrases tipped into ingenious patterns, the dances had little substance beyond the hints in the spoken text.

Unsupported by verbal signposts or printed explanations, David Dawson’s The Human Seasons and Christopher Wheeldon’s After the Rain made the same aimless impression in The Royal Ballet’s latest triple bill. Both follow the familiar formula classical companies have devised in their attempt to capture the young audience: replace tutus and tiaras with unitards, lower the lights, and assemble turns, jumps and complicated lifts into a mountain of physicality. No wonder such dances have proved so appealing. They pose no challenges, draw nothing from their music, and demand only appreciation for the dancers’ efforts. You can watch them, if they can hold your attention, without passing judgment, and they vanish as soon as the curtain falls, leaving your mind uncluttered.

Snapchat art may satisfy thousands of viewers – Wheeldon’s work is performed everywhere – but if you expect more from dance than display for its own sake, keep your eyes on Crystal Pite, a talented Canadian choreographer who realises her thoughts, memorably, in movement. Following Dawson and Wheeldon on that programme, she reminded us of dance’s expressive value, which many others seem to have forgotten. Her eagerly awaited creation, Flight Pattern, set to the first movement of Górecki’s Third Symphony, grips the score and our imagination with equal tenacity and does not let go.

Heads and shoulders bowed, a drab crowd in dark work clothes inches forward in regimented lines, corralled into a submissive procession. Couples break away from the mass but can’t escape. Women mourn but can’t provide protection. Anger flares and desperation cracks huddled tableaux apart, forcing each body farther from the group than the body before, like a film sequence frozen in isolated frames.

“The refugee crisis is the story of our time,” Pite has said. “How we are dealing with it is defining who we are.” Weighted with sorrow and fear, the ensemble rocks in place and surges in restless overlapping waves. Maybe you’ll see flashes of Le Sacre du printemps or Massine’s symphonic ballets or the structural austerity Nijinska employed, but Flight Pattern is wholly original, a personal statement in its own right. Nobody will see movement bereft of meaning, and the emotional impact of those purposeful bodies will not fade, for days or weeks or possibly longer.

Pictured: The Royal Ballet in Crystal Pite’s Flight Pattern. Photograph: Tristram Kenton, courtesy of the Royal Opera House.

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

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