15 June, 2005Issue 4.3The Arts

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From Modern to Beyond

Kate Nichols & Elizabeth Galloway

Founded in 1926, the Rambert Dance Company is proud of its place as the oldest dance company in the UK. The pieces presented in Oxford span its choreographic history from 1937 to 2005, paying tribute to the company’s past while emphasising the development of its repertoire.

Rambert’s programme opens with famed Rambert choreographer Antony Tudor’s ‘Judgement of Paris’ (1938). It transplants the Greek myth to a seedy cabaret, in which the three goddesses are reborn as lacklustre whores dancing for an inebriated Paris. Next is the graceful ‘Momenta’, a new ensemble piece for 10 dancers by company-member Mikaela Polley. Third is Tudor’s ‘Dark Elegies’, fi rst performed in 1937 and set to Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder (‘Songs on the death of children’), which imagines a community that has suffered a loss. Marie Rambert described it as Tudor’s masterpiece.) Michael Clark’s ‘Swamp’ (1986), the final and strongest piece, combines classical ballet with new wave punk, a piece in three parts loosely concerned with human relationships. The title of ‘Swamp’ is taken from a character’s nickname in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, appropriate given the dance’s theme of dislocation. Although a group piece, the individual dancers seem isolated owing to a choreography that centres around partnerships without maintaining any sense of symmetry. Clark’s trademark use of punk music seems gloriously rebellious against the Mahler that preceded it — and deliciously inappropriate for Oxford’s ‘New’ Theatre. While ‘Swamp’ never escapes the impression that it was written by a man angry at Thatcher, it remains an exhilarating piece with the power to make the audience deeply uncomfortable.

Unfortunately, some of Rambert’s other pieces haven’t aged so well. Judgement of Paris marries the narrative structure of a traditional ballet with cabaret-style music and subject matter, and although innovative for its time, it now seems a hackneyed period piece. Similarly, ‘Dark Elegies’ beautifully conveys the pain of bereavement, but although the subject matter is timeless, the 1930s choreography and costume directs us to see it historically. 1 e Rambert programme ultimately seems victim of its own successful past, apparently struggling to produce pieces that can rival those of its progressive early years. The company’s new artistic director Mark Baldwin’s inaugural piece, ‘Constant Speed’, premiering at Sadler’s Wells soon, will hopefully signal a return to form.

Paris-based Compagnie Kafig is 70 years younger than Rambert, performs hip hop, and fuses French, North African and Andalusian choreography with video art. Kafig was the headline act for Sadler’s Wells fi rst hip hop dance festival in 2004 and are touring the UK for the first time this spring.

The young Compagnie Kafig is so contemporary that Rambert, for all its innovation, seems conservative and establishmentarian. The chief attraction of their hour-long Corps est Graphique is its showmanship and energy; unsurprisingly many of the performers specialise in break-dance. The performers move with breathtaking agility and pace, and their audacious gymnastics elicit spontaneous cheers from the audience. This participation is encouraged not only by the piece’s wit and spectacle but by its audiovisuals; at times the dancers fuse with the video screen in the centre of the stage, leaping in and out of picture, and occasionally using the screen itself as a comic prop.

The programme’s real achievement is that, despite this showmanship, its backbone is genuinely inventive choreography and an inquisitive ideology. Corps est Graphique is concerned with the relationship between the human body and artifice (hence its pun on ‘choreography’). Mourad Merzouki, the artistic director, explained that he wants to prevent the audience from depending on eye contact with the dancers for their emotional response. He does this by placing boxes reminiscent of giant liquorice allsorts on the dancers’ heads. It is a daring visual statement, at first humorous but quickly becoming uncomfortable. Later the dancers are in black with human-sized puppets strapped to their front. Unsettlingly, the puppets seem more real than the dancers but at the same time remain intensely artificial.

This alienation and denial of individuality has parallels with ‘Dark Elegies’ and ‘Swamp’, but Corps est Graphique differs in its hopefulness. The grieving villagers and mechanised figures are left in the same position in which they started. Merzouki’s dancers rip off the boxes to reveal smiling faces clearly revelling in their own energy.

Kate Nichols, a former postgraduate at New College, Oxford, is a research assistant in the Beazley Archive, Ashmolean Museum.

Elizabeth Galloway is a publishing editor at Philip Allan, Oxfordshire.