I was privileged to be present at Edinburgh’s Festival Theatre, on 25 September, 2003; when, after a whole year’s hiatus, Scottish Ballet came out of hibernation, under the new artistic leadership of Ashley Page; setting out its stall to be a thoroughly modern company, specialising in the best contemporary choreography on both sides of the Atlantic. That opening manifesto was a quadruple bill of work by Richard Alston, Stephen Petronio, Siobhan Davies and Page himself. I recall it, vividly, as an evening of high emotional energy and one that aligned Scotland’s ballet company with the re-emergence of a strong national identity.

Scottish Ballet dancers in Angelin Preljocaj's <i>MC14-22</i> © Andy Ross
Scottish Ballet dancers in Angelin Preljocaj's MC14-22
© Andy Ross

Ashley Page has long gone and the company is now run – both commercially and artistically – by Christopher Hampson; like Page, a prolific and an excellent choreographer, but one identified predominantly as a classicist. Nonetheless, I left Sadler’s Wells thinking that this latest programme was a natural, maturing evolution from that visceral renewal, back in 2003. Here was innovative, compulsive, challenging modern dance in a pair of mature and proven works that also originated on both sides of the Atlantic.

Dance theatre by Angelin Preljocaj is an acquired taste. Highly spectacular with a strong emphasis on design quality, his work is always challenging. MC 14/22 (Ceci est mon corps) – for obvious reasons, more commonly known as MC14 – is essentially a work about The Last Supper, performed by twelve men, each representative of an apostle; though – at least without a PhD in Divinity – it is a fruitless game to attempt identifying them. Perhaps, more fruitful, is the task of trying to match each episode with its biblical inspiration. Washing the body, breaking the bread, surrendering the body to be reborn anew (a very effective closing repetitive sequence of dancers throwing themselves from height to be caught by others, just inches above the stage).

Scottish Ballet dancers in Angelin Preljocaj's <i>MC14-22</i> © Angelin Preljocaj
Scottish Ballet dancers in Angelin Preljocaj's MC14-22
© Angelin Preljocaj

The 55-minute work opens in silence with a pair of separately-lit scenes. On one side, Henry Dowden washes the body of Christopher Harrison, slowly, with a soft, sensual tenderness; while, a few feet away, tape is randomly stuck in stubby lines on a section of the stage. I thought I detected some initials or an acronym being marked out (maybe, even CH; in honour of the artistic director?) before becoming obliterated by other lines of tape.

Six tables punctuate the space, beginning as a form of dormitory, stacked in two rows, three tables-high, with disciples sleeping under each frame; and ending as a kind of diving board from which the “apostles” could throw themselves into their renewal.  One long sequence saw Andrew Peasgood repeat a simple dance phrase, while Eado Turgeman progressively restricted his movement capability by binding parts of him in packing tape.  By the end, Peasgood is completely cocooned in the stuff, unable to move, but still waddling around, poignantly, like a bird with broken wings, until being pushed to the floor, motionless.    In another sequence, Constant Vigier attempts to sing a pious song while being manipulated and pushed into unnatural positions; each physical abuse intervening with the purity of his song.

The work celebrates the male body with a profound, and sometimes, ruthless, intensity; providing a vehicle with which to exemplify the strong male cohort in Scottish Ballet.   If Hampson is acknowledged by the taped initials, then it is palpably deserved since Scottish Ballet’s director effectively saved this important work from oblivion given that it is no longer performed by Ballet Preljocaj or the Paris Opera Ballet (where Hampson first encountered it).

Scottish Ballet in Crystal Pite's <i>Emergence</i> © Andy Ross
Scottish Ballet in Crystal Pite's Emergence
© Andy Ross

Where MC14 showcases the men, Crystal Pite’s Emergence is an especially significant vehicle for eighteen women.  There are eighteen men, too; but it seems that they play the worker drones to that powerful alliance of women.  In perhaps the best of several memorable episodes, a shimmering line of Amazonian women, en pointe, seems to magnetically repel the men who advance towards them.

Pite is the fast-emerging international choreographer of our time.   Just eight years’ after making Emergence, her debut work, initially for the National Ballet of Canada, she won the Benois de la Danse, just last week, in Moscow.   Her dance USP is the ability to make bodies move elegantly, at scale; and this skill began to be honed here with Emergence, a work that articulates the phenomenon, in nature, known as swarm intelligence (the way a swarm of bees or a flock of birds move, through mutual intuition).    It is a phenomenon that presents itself in Pite’s choreography as a collective organism; a large group comprising lots of individual movements, but nonetheless capable of merging into flawless synchrony.

Scottish Ballet dancers in Crystal Pite's <i>Emergence</i> © Andy Ross
Scottish Ballet dancers in Crystal Pite's Emergence
© Andy Ross

Often in choreography, less can be more and the most common fault of choreographers is the inability to self-edit.  This is another of Pite’s great strengths.  She invariably leaves her audience, as breathless as the dancers, wanting more.  I have yet to see one of her works that overstays its welcome and Emergence was consistently absorbing and compulsively fascinating throughout.  It needs a very strong corps de ballet (women and men) to dance the 36 constituents of her particular swarm and Scottish Ballet met the choreographer’s complex challenges with considerable beauty.