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Music Notes by Barbara Newman

Posted on July 20, 2017

Pictured: les ballets C de la B in nicht schlafen.
Photographs: Chris Van der Burght.

1. Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker/Rosas in Rain at Sadler’s Wells

In Lucinda Childs’ Melody Excerpt, created in 1977 and seldom if ever revived now, the dancers’ feet in trainers supplied the only music. Grouped in varying combinations, the five performers walked and ran in curves and parallel lines, laying down a steady, sometimes syncopated beat that anchored the visual configurations and prevented them, and the viewers, from drifting into confusion. The effect was remarkable. You heard what you saw, and saw it more clearly because you could hear it.

When Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker choreographed Rain in 2001, she chose to align it with Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians, a hypnotic exploration of rhythms that overlap, loop, and fold back on themselves like origami. In theory, the choice makes perfect sense, because she has applied geometric and mathematical principles to her dances for years. Watching Rain in revival at Sadler’s Wells, however, I couldn’t find much of a link between movement and music. Having selected a score densely textured with harmony, De Keersmaeker concentrated largely on its repetitive nature and insistent drive; the 11 dancers began many phrases leaning sideways as if physically pushed.

Her interest in geometry surfaced in the circular paths that fit neatly inside one another and the long diagonal that broke into smaller and smaller groups performing the same material. The company fell, skipped and jumped tirelessly, but while the music continued to evolve their energetic sequences merely kept recurring. Without a change of pace, dynamics or inflection, after a while the dance took on the flatness of a simple declarative sentence. Once the dancers had shown that “We can do this,” they had nothing to deliver but a marathon, pure effort without cumulative momentum.

2. Alain Platel/les ballets C de la B in nicht schlafen at Sadler’s Wells (pictured)

Gustav Mahler’s music poses a nearly insuperable challenge to choreographers, who can easily find their creations overwhelmed by its rich sonorities and fervid romanticism. Rather than trying to match or tame that composer, Alain Platel has used excerpts from his symphonies as the springboard for a mysterious and curiously poetic piece, nicht schlafen, that has no story, no characters, no specified timeframe or location, and seems arbitrary in its episodic structure. Yet it hangs together organically, that is, the dances’ actions, no matter how disconnected, clearly emerge from a shared impulse and a shared response to the music.

Eight men and a woman stood motionless, focusing on a grotesque stack of three dead horses. Then they began to sing and soon to fight, grunting audibly as they tore at each other until their clothes hung in tatters. When Mahler cut into the mayhem, they coalesced into a deliberate ensemble, sometimes moving in perfect unison, sometimes performing the same gestures in their own time rather than identically.

Seemingly random events sprang from nowhere. Two men slid over and through each other’s limbs like snakes. Another two men, from Kinshasa, chanted exuberantly in their native language, stamping out a rhythm re-enforced by ankle bells. Supported dispassionately, the woman bent and twisted into contortions, cool as stone, fluid as water. Several marchers crossed the stage in step, arms rigid in a Nazi salute.

Who were these angry, desolate people? Were they at war? Under siege? Survivors? When Pablo Picasso’s Guernica flashed through my mind, the fragments of nicht schlafen fell into place as if shaken in a kaleidoscope; suddenly I saw it as a parallel vision of senseless brutality, this time realised through the meticulous organisation of moving bodies. Holding chaos in check by fusing rigorous choreography with on-the-spot improvisation, Platel unearthed an emotional stream of consciousness both provoked and governed by music.

3. Michelle Dorrance/Dorrance Dance in ETM: Double Down at Sadler’s Wells

Then there’s tap. Largely ignored in this country except in musicals, tap dancing is valued as an art form in the US, where the inimitable Savion Glover can sell out a theatre by himself. Here, he doesn’t fill Sadler’s Wells, and neither did Dorrance Dance, a company directed by Michelle Dorrance, who has choreographed, taught and performed internationally with a catalogue of distinguished tap artists.

Co-created with Nicholas Van Young, a member of her troupe and also a drummer, her ETM: Double Down blunts tap’s potential for unimaginable rhythms and nuanced tonality to use the dancers’ feet and weight as percussion instruments. For that purpose, Van Young devised a set of low wooden boxes, linked by contact microphones to a mini-converter linked to a computer. As Dorrance has explained (see Dancing Times, July 2017), “we play these with our feet like an electronic drum kit” in concert with live vocals, bass and piano.

Engaging? Confusing? I couldn’t determine whether the dancers were generating the individual notes we heard as they stepped on the boxes or synchronising their moves to sounds produced elsewhere. Only my eyes could tell one dancer from another – as musicals have proved, amplification adds resonance to sound but masks its source – and my ears, usually vital for enjoying tap, could have gone on holiday. Caught in a thunderous storm of amplified voices, live and recorded, plus amplified accompaniment by piano, double bass or guitar plus drums, the taps never stood a chance.

Were the seven terrific tappers and one break dancer satisfied to be establishing a ground base for solos or trading phrases with each other or the musicians? I heard more varied intonation and teasing, subtle rhythms in the short snare drum duet that had the stage to itself, and I’m still wondering why any choreographer would want to treat tap dancing as less sophisticated, less musical and less interesting than it can be.

Barbara Newman is dance critic for Country Life, a frequent contributor to numerous periodicals and reference works, and the author of a number of books about ballet which include a volume of interviews, Striking a Balance; a children’s book, The Illustrated Book of Ballet Stories; and Grace Under Pressure.

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