Since Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui took charge of the Royal Ballet of Flanders in 2014, the company has been combining a classical repertoire (Cranko, Grigorovich) with programmes of contemporary dance, including old and new choreographers (Pina Bausch, Martha Graham, Maurice Béjart, and Akram Khan, Christian Spuck, Hofesh Shechter...). The triple bill selected for the company’s recent visit to Madrid directly connects with its commitment to contemporary dance, with two pieces by Cherkaoui himself and one by Canadian choreographer Crystal Pite. The programme had an uneven impact on the audience. After a mild start with Cherkaoui’s Firebird (2015), Pite’s Ten Duets on a Theme of Rescue (2006) shone with its beautiful, expressive simplicity. The evening ended brilliantly with Faun (2009), a fascinating duet that is fast becoming one of the most enduring pieces in Cherkaoui’s repertory. 

Firebird was created only three years ago for Stuttgart Ballet, and reimagines Fokine’s iconic creation for the Ballet Russes. It eschews a direct narrative, and offers a meditation on the theme of rebirth and regeneration. Its main dance vocabulary is ballet, but unlike other hybrid works where Cherkaoui’s experimentation with dance styles alien to his training has produced truly remarkable results, the outcome is, on this occasion, less solid. While the piece still retains some of the traits of Cherkaoui’s style (the fluidity of the steps and of the group formations is remarkable), the movement material does not achieve a distinctive personality. It is perhaps a bit too superficial to make a greater impact. The slight unsteadiness with which it was performed by some of the dancers did not help to enliven the piece either.

Pite’s Ten Duets is an early production in her repertory. Despite is brevity (just twelve minutes), it possesses an intense, expressive force. It reflects on the dynamics of human relationships, focusing on the possibilities of connection between individuals. The ten duets are beautifully interwoven, choreographed with a serene vitality that produces a mesmeric effect. Each step is so lucid and runs so smoothly into the next that when the ending arrives, it feels unexpected. It leaves the impression of concluding a work that is only too short. The dancers of the Royal Ballet of Flanders were at ease with the movement style here and performed with confidence and spirit.   

Faun has also a duet at its heart. It stems from Nijinsky’s proposal, preserving many of its well-known ingredients. The story happens in a warm afternoon, in a forest, between two mythical creatures, a nymph and a faun. The music is Debussy’s, with some contemporary additions by Nitin Sawhney, and the central idea is that of sexual awakening too. Yet Cherkaoui opts for portraying the carnal encounter rather than the yearning for it. The choreography heavily relies on supports that progressively build the intimacy between the characters. The physicality of the body's involvement is superbly emphasized by Cherkaoui’s serpentine, imaginative steps. Faun was admirably performed by Nicola Wills and Philipe Lens. They achieved a sensual symbiosis that not only did give evidence of the excellent chemistry between them but also evoked the youthful impetus that the roles required.