Russell Maliphant and his dancers presented Still / Current, an evening of solos, duets and trios at Artsdepot in north London this past Wednesday. Though working with what are clearly excellent dancers, all of the pieces were mediated by the lighting. The lighting design was by Maliphant’s long-time collaborator Michael Hulls.

Still Current: Carys Staton and Adam Kirkham © Warren Du Preez and Nick Thornton Jones
Still Current: Carys Staton and Adam Kirkham
© Warren Du Preez and Nick Thornton Jones

Using only an overhead spot, or at times three spots, pointed directly at the stage floor, threw most of the stage into darkness, and allowed only the upper curves of each muscle and feature of the dancers to be highlighted. The effect was one of extreme contrast, as if the movement were emerging out of the void of nothingness. I won’t argue that there isn’t a metaphoric power to darkness, or that the world of deep contrast that Maliphant and Hulls inhabit in their creative vision lacks a brooding drama. The pieces on the program had all of that.

In the conversation between the dancers and the audience that was held after the programme, Maliphant emphasised that it was only under such highlighting darkness that he could best see the dancer’s body and movements.

I do believe that darkness is an accurate metaphor for creativity: that our ideas and impulses arise from regions far beyond the light of understanding, and perhaps even more, that it is the dark side of our internal world that evokes security and a healing stasis – a hibernation, if you will. It is also the side of ourselves that creates movement, that impels us to act, simply because it keeps us from understanding our drives and motivations. If what we desire in life is hidden from us, we are less likely to censor ourselves and more likely to seek out that which gives us satisfaction.

On the other hand, I can’t help wishing that Maliphant had provided at least one dance with the stage fully lit, in blazing transformative colours – if only to deepen the power of the dark. The insistently dark lighting effect falls, finally, under the too-much-of-a-good-thing category.

And as for the dancing... Russell Maliphant works with splendid dancers and is a splendid dancer himself.

The opening dance, Traces, which was also the most brightly lit piece even though bright doesn’t really apply, began with Thomasin Gülgeç dancing with an approximately three-foot-long stick. With it he traced out a geometry of space within the less well-defined space of the stage. Circularity of motion was the dance’s motif, with the dancer’s body as the circle’s center, the stick a form of compass. Gülgeç was joined by Maliphant and Dickson Mbi, each with similar sticks, who repeated the circular motif. At one point Gülgeç discards his stick, and becomes the centre of the other two men’s intersecting movements.

Two featured Carys Staton, with music by Andy Cowton, who also composed Traces. Staton begins in a darkened stage with a solitary overhead spot. Throughout the music a bell rings, which seems to set the dancer into motion. Even so, her movement seems restricted, not by the music but by the dark that surrounds her. The dance opens up slightly with the addition of two spots. There is throughout the piece a feeling of suspension toward the light and entrapment by the darkness.

Still, which follows, opens with Dickson Mbi, again underneath a solitary spot. The lighting effect changes subtly, however, as light and dark patterns are projected down onto the dancer from above. Mbi was born to dance; he began dancing in 2005, practising street dances, popping and boogaloo. I have the deepest respect for street dancers: autodidacts, they are some of the most inventive dancers of the past 40 years. That Mbi can step into the company of highly trained dancers after only seven years of dancing is a compelling statement about the extent of his talent. The elegantly limbed Staton joined him to finish the duet.

After the interval, Gülgeç performed, sweetly, the long Afterlight (Part One), set to four of Eric Satie’s Gnossiennes. The only piece choreographed to decidedly melodic music, it’s described as inspired by drawings of Nijinsky. We have only photos and drawings of Nijinsky dancing, performing his huge leaps, but he is instantly recognizable: the tilted eyes and narrow face, the long serpentine neck, the heavy thighs. He seems eternally aligned with the preternatural – the faun, the bewitched puppet, the spirit of the rose. We know him through his choreography – what remains of that – which was reconstructed by his sister and fellow dancers, and through his diaries, also edited. Maliphant’s portrayal uses the familiar gestures, the faun’s hoof, for example, and melds them into a lyrical piece that captures a dancer’s yearning for an unknowable genius lost.

The last piece on the programme, Interrupted Current, was a pas de deux between Maliphant and Staton. Intimate but strangely dispassionate, it was the piece in which I felt most frustrated by the darkness of the lighting. I kept thinking, what would this be like if I could see the small details of movement that are the dancer’s most telling acts? Clearly, it was very well danced, but I guess I’ll never know how well danced.