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Risks Worth Taking by Barbara Newman

Posted on April 18, 2018

In 1921 when Serge Diaghilev produced The Sleeping Princess (commonly called The Sleeping Beauty) in London, he had trouble selling it. Accustomed to an assortment of styles, subjects, music and design in every programme, the public was disappointed by the endless string of classical ensembles and variations, and the production closed halfway through its intended run.

The opposite problem plagues dance companies today. Viewers who flock to Swan Lake or Matthew Bourne’s narratives remain wary of unfamiliar titles and choreographers. However, English National Ballet’s latest mixed bill might help change the public’s mind. A thumbnail history of contemporary ballet, Voices of America reaches back to 1951 for Jerome Robbins’ ferocious ballet, The Cage. Originally considered controversial, its savage depiction of animalistic women treating men as their prey suits the swell of anger that currently fills women and headlines around the world.

William Forsythe’s new Playlist (Track 1, 2) balances the programme’s gender opportunities and flaunts the spirit and reckless speed of ballet today. An astounding demonstration of choreographic ingenuity, it shapes a brilliantly organised structure into a mobile frame for precise, impeccable technique. Meeting neo-soul and house music with the insouciance of club dancers, 12 men present the classical vocabulary formally, clear as cut glass, while also distorting it, smashing it and reassembling it, in unison, canon, successive solos or interwoven groups. Anything goes – ballet can take it.

An artistic coup for the company, this is Forsythe’s first creation for a UK ballet company in 20 years, and his Approximate Sonata 2016, on the same programme, reveals some of its roots. Smaller in scale – four of the five sections are pas de deux – it’s more intimate and allows more time for the viewer to digest each disruption in the performers’ line, balance and focus. Despite Aszure Barton’s tedious Fantastic Beings, which tries too hard to achieve the choreographic effects Forsythe can draw from a single duet, the evening issues a compelling invitation to venture beyond your comfort zone.

The dancing that never reaches the ballet stage can be just as absorbing as Forsythe’s neoclassial inventions. If you’re willing to explore, look out for performances like Identity, “a celebration of East London’s eclectic dance and fashion cultures” recently presented for three nights by East London Dance. Raising the roof at Shoreditch Town Hall, four small troupes you’ve probably never heard of constructed an unusual concert out of sexual politics and dance styles born in the street.

Honouring the evening’s title, Houston Dance Collective upended everyday “expectations of gender” by allocating break dancing in The Purple Jigsaw to the two women and reserving the two men for voguing, an artful refinement of fashion models’ studied moves and poses.

Led by Tony Adigun who directed the entire evening, Avant Garde Dance Company flew through a mysterious tribal ritual, pitting a lone man against a group of women in a violently energetic conflict. House of Absolute contributed a gentle duet for two women wearing elaborate kimono who encircled themselves in chiffon wafting from parasols held overhead.

Both pieces would fit comfortably into a contemporary dance performance, but Rugged Estate, the five men who closed the evening, gave an astounding display of krumping unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Isolated in his own space, each dancer seemed powered by erratic jolts of electricity: limbs flailed and froze midair, gestures shattered as if sliced by a strobe. Contorted at the joints as if hinged, the men hurled themselves through juddering aggressive solos that looked like private emotion made public, continually confounding gravity with their precarious alignment.

Though they choreographed this work collaboratively for the occasion, another viewer explained to me that “the essence of krump is improvised. The point is what you bring to the space on the day.” These artists brought their commitment and extraordinary physical dexterity to Shoreditch, and offered us their emotion and personality at the same time, as only the best dancers can.

Pictured: Dancers of English National Ballet in William Forsythe’s Playlist (Track 1, 2). Photograph by Laurent Liotardo.

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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