It has taken Alexander Whitley the best part of seven years to get to 8 Minutes. It was back in 2010, that Sadler’s Wells first identified him as an “early-career” choreographer in the first edition of their Summer University programme. That led to the theatre making him one of their New Wave Associates; and now commissioning (alongside Dance East and Trinity Laban) his first big-scale main stage production. 8 Minutes is, in fact, roughly the time that it takes for light from the sun to travel across space to reach the earth. This particular 8 minutes lasts for roughly an hour and is to all intents and purposes a work about the Sun and its relationship to earth. 

Alexander Whitley's <i>8 Minutes</i> © Johan Persson
Alexander Whitley's 8 Minutes
© Johan Persson

Whitley is a choreographer – not unlike Wayne McGregor, in this particular regard – making movement related to a deep enquiry into aspects of science. Although this parallel with McGregor is matched by an exact reversal in their direction of travel: McGregor is a choreographer who came from contemporary dance and is now partly resident in the world of ballet; Whitley is a former ballet dancer who has progressed to the leading edge of new movement, as so well exemplified in this world première.   

Echoes of McGregor also extend to a strong integration of live dance and digital imagery. From the get-go, Whitley’s lyrical movement is continually enhanced by the vivid ever-changing landscape of Tal Rosner’s graphics, which move from expositions of simple data (lines, dots, squares within squares, something that looked like an early computer game) to evolve through eleven sections to pick up a 3D, Virtual Reality intensity of scientific images: from the microscopic beginnings of life to something resembling a Roswell alien head and then on to the enormity of the milky way. 

Alexander Whitley's <i>8 Minutes</i> © Johan Persson
Alexander Whitley's 8 Minutes
© Johan Persson
Whitley teases his audience with a false ending, their premature applause subsiding in the face of an epilogue in which the seven dancers perform in front of a giant raging circle of searing plasma, surrounded by a swirling, wispy circle of the brightest yellow. Often such fusion of onscreen (digital) and onstage (live) action fails to gel; but, here, there is a constant symmetry that reaches attractive heights from an always elegant base camp. The opening sequences, in particular, which focus on the group interaction of Whitley’s team of seven dancers, bathed in soft light, are especially absorbing.    

The third vital ingredient in the trio of equal creative contributions came in the form of Daniel Wohl’s highly descriptive score, which merges electronica with more traditional instrumentations, in a way that emphasized the physics and the dance; the science and the celestial. The all-embracing integration of the lead triumvirate of creatives was underpinned by the guidance of both a scientist [Dr Hugh Mortimer, of Oxford-based STFC RAL Space, the instigators of this project) and effective dramaturgy from Sasha Milavic Davies. Lighting designs (by Jackie Shemesh) and costumes (designed by Merle Henshel) have also been finely integrated into a purposeful experience.  

It takes months to prepare a work like this, particularly when so many strong influences have to be manipulated and massaged into a meaningful hour of arresting dance theatre. But, in this case, an extra twist was added to the première, after a preview, just days’ before. The idea emerged – and was readily accepted by Whitley and his team – to inject, a few sentences at a time, an engaging, voiceover, taken from the recorded lectures of the late Alan Watts, a British philosopher who worked for most of his life in the USA.  It was a stroke of genius, punctuating some sections with the briefest of crisply-spoken narratives, while bringing a welcome new force to the enquiry.

Alexander Whitley's <i>8 Minutes</i> © Johan Persson
Alexander Whitley's 8 Minutes
© Johan Persson

It is to the credit of the choreographer and the dancers that they were never seemingly underpowered or overwhelmed by the giant imagery on the back wall behind them. They gelled superbly, throughout, as a group. It was personally pleasing to see Julia Sanz Fernández landing back in a strong contemporary piece after suffering last year’s debacle of the short-sighted closing of Baltic Dance Theatre. Yet another enigmatic dancer to emerge from Barcelona, I hope that Fernández becomes a regular performer in the UK. However, although Whitley provided opportunities for each individual dancer to step away from the group, there were no stars in this 8 Minutes, other than the Sun.