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Rambert Dance Company

'Tread Softly,' 'Carnival of the Animals' and 'The Comedy of Change'

by David Mead

November 3, 2009 -- Sadler's Wells Theatre, London

To say that Henri Oguike’s new work, “Tread Softly”, is busy would be an understatement.  The calm, slow, and silent opening in which a man approaches a woman lying on the floor, and carefully stands on her stomach is quite lovely.  It is a motif repeated and varied later in the work.  But it is also a rare moment of peace in a work that is an orgy of almost relentless action.

Although the piece is danced to Mahler’s 1894 orchestration of Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden”, death is not what the music or dance is about.  It is possible to read short narratives into the multiple duets that come and go, but Oguike’s choreography is, pure and simply, a reflection of the energy of music.  And what energy.  The dance is infused with fast, often edgy movement, with several references to Oguike’s African dance style.  Some things are overdone.  I don’t think one needs quite so many pelvic gyrations to get the message, but on the whole Oguike doesn’t stay with an idea for so long that you get bored.  Yet there is almost too much action and too little contrast.  I suspect that “Tread Softly” is one of those pieces that will benefit from multiple viewings.  There is so much going on that afterwards the movement itself all seems rather a blur.  What did stick in the memory is Yaron Abuulaifia’s alluring lighting, often shadowy, but at its best when he constructs lines of light that define different spaces on an otherwise almost dark stage,.

Respite came with Siobhan Davies’ “Carnival of the Animals”.  Maybe it is because each piece of music is so short that it is difficult to develop an idea or character, but more than one choreographer has struggled to create an entirely satisfactory work to Saint-Saëns’ score.  There is also a very fine line between taking only the movement quality of a particular animal, and imitation or mime.  The latter, which Davies succumbs to on occasion, can easily lead to pantomimic humour, something I have never enjoyed.

The best parts of “Carnival” come when Davies focuses on the qualities inherent in the music and in a particular animal’s movement rather than attempting to reproduce or abstract certain aspects of the movement per se.  Alexander Whiteley is sublime as the swan, moving beautifully from one graceful arabesque or attitude to another.  The only direct reference to a swan comes when he makes the shape of a swan’s neck with his arm.  It is so subtle it is easily missed.  Other highlights include the “Characters with long ears” - actually a dancer walking on his hands, and the waltz in the aquarium, although I could do without the later swimming mime.  Davies also scores well by setting the work in the context of a good-mannered house party, with everyone in white jackets or tailcoats.  This is a clever reflection of the weekend get-together, enjoyed by Saint-Saëns’ and his friends, during which the music was composed.

Animals were also the theme of Mark Baldwin’s “The Comedy of Change” that closed the evening.  Made to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species”, this is rather a different take on animals and their behaviour.  The title comes from the idea that mistakes and accidents are fundamental to the process of evolution, although the work also seems to owe much to that of the late Merce Cunningham. It is a fascinating and extremely watchable piece.  It opens with seven chrysalises (designed by Kader Attia) on stage. The dancers emerge from these, although the almost translucent structures are immediately and unceremoniously pushed to the back of the stage and soon disappear, never to be seen again.

Dressed in Georg Meyer-Wiel’s simple but strikingly effective unitards, white at the front and black at the back, the dancers dance a series of highly engaging rituals, full of effortless intertwining bodies, jumps and lifts.  Despite the chrysalises of the opening, most of the movement inspiration comes from birds, especially their mating dances.  The costumes are partly a reference to animal camouflage, allowing the dancers to disappear into the all black or all white background very easily.  They also indicate the opposition between survival and extinction.

Julian Anderson’s new score, similarly inspired by the sounds of animals and birds, is decidedly not tuneful, but it does provided a structure for the work.  And unlike Oguike’s earlier work, “The Comedy of Change” is uncluttered, as he allows time and space for the audience to take everything in.

Rambert Dance Company continue on tour to Bath, Norwich and Northampton in 2009.  In 2010 they are due to visit Brighton, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Mold, Newcastle and Sheffield.  See for details.

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