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Rambert in The Castaways at the New Theatre, Oxford

Posted on April 22, 2014

The Castaways, choreographed by Barak Marshall and danced by Rambert, tells the story of a cast of 12 characters trapped in a strange, unexplained, seemingly underground limbo. How they have arrived here and how they are to escape are not clear. Their predicament is nonetheless enthralling.

 

The characters’ individual stories are played out for us in clever choreographed pastiches, and narrated by a cartoonish, mocking emcee: the jilted bride murdering her way through endless fiancés, the would-be lovers too timid to admit their feelings, the destructively passionate Latin couple and other such familiar tropes. The characters seem to have stepped straight off the pages of a particularly sinister children’s story book, although one underlined by very adult themes of love, war, fear and bitterness.

Marshall uses speech as well as dance at great length to tell his story. Relying on the acting abilities of a contemporary dance company is a laudably brave decision, and the dancers prove themselves competent, with a few standout performances. In these acted scenes Marshall’s characters have the appearance of rag dolls in a wooden toy box, playing out the imaginings of a child: they are meek and beholden to a greater force. Their sporadic bouts of rage against their entrapment are pitifully futile and their many sorrows are offered up for our amusement, rendering them all the more tragic.

The same cannot be said, however, as soon as the characters begin to dance. The piece is sporadically punctuated by non-narrative sequences of group dance, in which the dancers fill and utterly claim the stage. In dancing they are no longer laughable. They are powerful, and yet disturbingly complicit in their own entrapment. They dance in regimented lines, dutifully repeating steps over and over, determined and aggressive, and utterly uniform. Canoned repetition abounds, giving the impression that these are steps that may be danced on a loop ad infinitum. It is through these sequences that Marshall’s own description of the piece is most evident. He says that the characters themselves “perpetuate the same vicious cycle they try to escape”.

Marshall’s musical choices are unexpected and deserve particular praise. By encompassing a vast range of time periods and genres, from 1930s swing to modern world fusion, Marshall lends his tale a sort of timeless relevance. His cohesiveness of choreographic style ensures that the musical choices never feel disjointed. Each piece of music complements the primal, almost tribal energy of the dancers as beautifully as the next.

The Castaways is perfect for a company such as Rambert, in whom there is a constant and interesting tension between the individuality of the dancers and their cohesiveness as a company. The piece is not wholly satisfying – its resolution hardly merits the word – and this is most likely intentional. Marshall allows us merely a teasing glimpse of something cyclical, and terrifyingly so.

 

Emily Romain is winner of the Oxford Dance Writers of the Future competition.

Photograph: Rambert in The Castaways by Chris Nash.

Jonathan Gray is editor of Dancing Times. He studied at The Royal Ballet School, Leicester Polytechnic, and Wimbledon School of Art where he graduated with a BA Hons in Theatre Design. For 16 years he was a member of the curatorial department of the Theatre Museum, London, assisting on a number of dance-related exhibitions, and helping with the recreation of original designs for a number of The Royal Ballet’s productions including Danses concertantes, Daphnis and Chloë, and The Sleeping Beauty. He has also contributed to the Financial Times, written programme articles for The Royal Ballet and Birmingham Royal Ballet, and is co-author of the book Unleashing Britain: Theatre gets real 1955-64, published in 2005.

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