This opening performance of the 2016 Festival might have been deliberately created as an auto-biographical account of Dance Umbrella, now approaching its fortieth iteration, given that this annual review of the contemporary dance landscape is generally full of unknown and unexpected pleasures. 

Choreographers and their collaborators are conventionally name-checked but often our awareness of them quickly returns to anonymity. Here, CCN Ballet de Lorraine and Dance Umbrella have worked together to create a loosely-assembled patchwork of dances, made by five anonymous choreographers with uncredited contributions in terms of music (x6), lighting (x1), costumes (x6) and stage designers (x2).     

© Arno Paul
© Arno Paul
CCN stands for Centre Chorégraphique National (National Choreographic Centre), a tremendous initiative of the French Government in the 1980s through policy pioneered by the then culture minister, Jack Lang. There are now nineteen of these regional centres including Ballet de Lorraine (based in Nancy), which has been run by Peter Jacobsson, formerly a principal dancer with the Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet (now Birmingham Royal Ballet), since 2011.  

Unknown Pleasures stitches together seemingly unrelated dance performances, with a strong yarn of bewilderment; topped and tailed by soft, melancholic singing in an unknown language; perhaps Arabic, perhaps African, perhaps nonsense. The resultant world première was often hypnotically absorbing, largely bewildering, sometimes mind-numbing and generally incoherent.  

That said, this was very much a dancers' production. Two of the five sections, in particular, were replete with mesmerizingly complex counts, canons and layers of repetition. But, by the same virtues, their geometric and other mathematical complexities were largely inaccessible to the uninitiated. As a result, the work was ecstatically received by the large portion of the audience that came from the dance world; but, less so, by the general public. Some people left before the end; many accompanied their standing ovation with the ubiquitous “whoops” that stand as a dancer’s badge of respect for their peers.   

The strongest individual section was a dance reminiscent of Merce Cunningham’s mid-career work which engaged all – or, at least, most – of the 20 CCN – Ballet de Lorraine dancers, wearing white t-shirts and dark trousers; the former bearing a single letter on the front and back. The simple layers of movement largely consisted of side steps and spinning single and multiple turns, in one direction and then another; relentlessly rotating in circles of bodies and then lined up in an ever-changing, cascade of parade-ground squares. After some considerable while, it dawned on me that the letters on the front and back of the shirts momentarily created words and sentences, like kaleidoscopic games of Countdown, where the conundrum is fleetingly revealed: I spotted “The World is Burning” and my companion countered with “The World is Turning”. There may have been plenty of other such reveals but they passed me by.

Although clearly the strongest section, and danced with remarkable accuracy and stamina by these extraordinarily fit dancers, both physically and mentally, it over-killed a basic idea to the point where one’s mind began to wander. The second memorable section was one that rather destroyed the concept of anonymity, since the music was the full 15-minute orchestral movement for Ravel’s Bolero. Again, the majority of the dancers were used in a work that seemed to reference some of the peripheral aspects of Maurice Béjart’s choreography particularly in the side-to-side, foot-to-foot, rocking motion that reflects the relentless, sexual tempo of the music; perhaps one of the world’s best-known classical melodies. But, as with the earlier word-creating ensemble piece, this was an idea that didn’t develop into anything significant and the climactic ending with its sudden key changes into the dissonance of the final chords was reflected in surprisingly dull choreography; concluding with the whimper of a damp squib rather than the explosive climax suggested by the music.

The other three sections were generally unmemorable, choreographically, although the skin-tight gold bodysuits of the penultimate work will be hard to forget. The dancers were onstage as the audience arrived, separated via the fourth wall, by a multi-coloured plastic curtain, composed of different pastel-coloured squares. It seemed like a giant version of the kind of thing a ‘50s picnic lunch might have been wrapped in. But, by and large these sections were as anonymous in their impact as they had been in their creation.

The deconstructive concept of removing all the credit for creating, although not performing, a work such as this holds a certain fascination and it is hard not to try to guess who the contributing choreographers might be. But, not knowing their identities cannot mask the fact that much of the output was disappointing; unless you can view it through a dancer’s eyes.