I was fortunate to see Wayne McGregor’s choreography set on the San Francisco Ballet several years back, so I was eager to see Random Works, which was performed this past weekend in Kings Place’s Hall One. Random Works wasn’t McGregor’s choreography, but rather the work of ten young choreographers. McGregor is listed as the programme’s curator. Hall One is a beautiful performance space, and the performance music was composed for the event by electronic music experimentalist Leafcutter John in collaboration with composer/violist Max Baillie. Clarinettist Timothy Orpen joined the composers for the performance. As McGregor remarks in the programme, it’s rare for choreographers to be able to collaborate with living composers and musicians.
The first piece, Cultivate a Quiet Joy, was choreographed by Fukiko Takase. Dancer Mbulelo Ndabeni entered the stage then walked down into the audience and across to center stage while running his fingers along the stage. He touched the floor tenderly, as if establishing a relationship with the surface on which he would perform. Then he gently and effortlessly rolled onto the stage, moving upright to upstage right where, with his back to the audience, he made small movements that grew in size and scope. Given his supremely beautiful body, well trained in ballet, these small movements were something to savour. Every once in a while as he circled the stage Ndabeni would execute a striking movement: a cabriole or the pointing of a finger to his eye as if he were brushing away a tear. Most of the dancers were ballet trained, although the vocabulary of ballet was seldom seen.
Takase’s piece defined the parameters of the eight pieces that comprised the evening’s fare. The question asked by each choreographer was: how much is the body an object in space? Romantic ballet, which continues to dominate the large performance companies, brings with it a narrative, usually of love and often of loss. In Random Works the choreographers’ concern was first of all with multiple ways in which the body inhabits space. The dancers may have been in shorts and T-shirts rather than tutus, but their bodies wrapped their motions in something as precious and as carefully crafted as the most rhinestone-covered confection of satin and tulle.
The clearest example of the body in space was personified in the dancer Marina Rodríguez Hernández, who was the female dancer in the programme’s second piece, choreographed by Alexander Whitley, and also in its third piece, Theme V3, choreographed by Anna Nowak. Rodríguez Hernández dances the former with Whitley and the second with Louis McMiller. In his untitled work, Whitley made use of the dancer’s extraordinary flexibility, visible not only in undulations through her torso but also in the way her movements coursed out from the joints of her body, as if each would dislocate into the farthest range of its movement.
In Theme V3, the choreographer emphasised the dancers’ disparate heights: Rodríguez Hernández is small and compact; McMiller tall and long-limbed. The energy of both dancers, however, was located in the centres of their bodies: Rodríguez Hernández’s shoulders often hunched over, the upper part of her torso collapsed inward. This was in almost complete contrast to how her body was used in the previous dance.
The most humorous and narrative of the dances was The Keeper, presented as a video and reminiscent of Jan Švankmajer’s stop-motion “Alice” (Něco z Alenky). A young man, enacted by Jack Jones, falls into an ancient brick room where he nervously unpacks an old satchel. He drags out a deliciously shaped pewter teapot and peering inside sees five people in white lab coats. He pulls out a spoon, which he uses like a mirror to look at his terrified face. More demonic spoons pour out: they’re everywhere, each tiny person in the pot is holding one. Jones is inside the pot, outside the pot, constantly changing size and place until finally he disappears, spoons and all, into a hole in the wall. Directed, filmed and edited by Jessica Wright and Morgann Runacre-Temple, this short ballet is an homage to Lewis Carroll’s playful understanding of humans in improbable space.
The pieces that closed the programme were an untitled pas de deux choreographed by Robert Binet; linear, choreographed by Travis Clausen-Knight, which presented a contemporary portrait of the Three Graces, danced by Emma Fisher, Ellen Yilma and Viola Vicini garbed in their underwear with intriguingly placed lines of what looked like electrical tape; BOTL, a choreography of the face, tongue and mouth by Michael-John Harper; and Vuong 10, a pas de deux by Carvalho and Nina Kov.
A final word about the musicians. Both Baillie and Orpen are members of Kings Place resident Aurora Orchestra. And there’s no denying the combo is comprised of kickass musicians. Baillie’s amplified percussion work in the second interval was achingly beautiful, suggesting the fast footwork of ecstatic dancers and reminiscent of the human heartbeat. Leafcutter John can crumple sheets of paper for me any day of the week.
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