Visiting The Grange Festival in Hampshire, one is struck by the contrasts between old and new: the imposing entrance of this grand neo-classical mansion, and the fleet of sleek sports cars parked outside; the vast parkland, dominated by contemporary sculptures; and the ‘roofed ruin’ where festival-goers dine, adorned with Rick Guest’s photographs of Wayne McGregor.

Company Wayne McGregor © Camilla Greenwell
Company Wayne McGregor
© Camilla Greenwell

Similarly, while the festival follows in the footsteps of its predecessor, Grange Park Opera, by offering traditional operatic fare, Dance@TheGrange – which launched last year under McGregor – represents something altogether more game-changing. Those well-connected Hampshire regulars were impressed if a little shaken (“Where were the tutus?”). This year, they seemed more prepared – and they needed to be. Gone were the ‘sweeteners’; two works by McGregor and Cathy Marston dominated, but there were also more opportunities for young choreographers, courtesy of The Grange’s New Commission Fund.

It opened with McGregor’s Outlier (created in 2010 for New York City Ballet), performed by Company Wayne McGregor to Thomas Adès’s fiendish, haunting Violin Concerto “Concentric Paths”. Wearing colour-neutral bodysuits, ten dancers combine balletic port de bras and arabesques with extreme split legs and body isolations. Movement mirrors music more closely than in other McGregor works – a groaning brass chord evokes a lunge, a bass-drum thwack unleashes an upper body block. Lucy Carter’s design projects red circles onto the stage; in the third movement, they reappear, white this time, providing a focal point for the dancers moving in groups of three, then two, spinning ever faster as the lights dim.

McGregor’s kinetic choreography barely lets up – until the appearance of 56-year-old Alessandra Ferri. In her second-movement pas de deux, Ferri embodies a delicate flower – winding arms, expressive hands; she even makes her bent-leg arabesques look graceful. It’s just a pity that the Violin Concerto wasn’t performed live, which would have allowed for more pliability between dancer and musician.

Ballet Black in <i>WASHA</i> by Mthuthuzeli November © Camilla Greenwell
Ballet Black in WASHA by Mthuthuzeli November
© Camilla Greenwell

Ballet Black replaced the Royal Ballet this year, and if these were big shoes to fill, the dancers didn’t let on. They first shone the spotlight on Mthuthuzeli November, a young company member whose burgeoning work as a choreographer was showcased in Grange commission WASHA: The Burn from the Inside. To a thrumming, chanting, percussion-based score by fellow South African Peter Johnson, six barefooted dancers wearing flowing red skirts evoke tribal movements – legs wide, undulating torsos, jerky hands, fluttering fingers. Often the dancers move individually, but it’s when they come together as one – all snaking hips and unfurling arms – that they are at their most thrilling. As the piece moves to its climax and the music builds, the skirts swish, the movements become frenzied. It’s hypnotic.

Two works by ex-Australian Ballet dancer Alice Topp, danced by Company Wayne McGregor, were also striking but less memorable (owing perhaps to Einaudi’s minimalist music being used for both). Clay, another Grange commission and set to form part of a full-length ballet, portrays a bedroom tryst between two lovers. There’s a lovely ebb and flow to the contemporary dance-based movement, fearlessly executed by Rebecca Bassett-Graham and Izzac Carroll; when they run backwards at full pelt and she plummets to the floor, he catches her just in time. In 2016’s Little Atlas (a clear homage to McGregor’s distinct choreographic style), Jordan James Bridge and Jacob O'Connell tussle over (ex-Royal Ballet dancer) Camille Bracher; Bracher, her expressive eyes transmitting to the back of the theatre, is passed from one to the other and dragged across the floor. It’s impressively athletic, but lacks Clay‘s emotional resonance.

Ballet Black’s Cira Robinson and José Alves in <i>The Suit</i> by Cathy Marston © Camilla Greenwell
Ballet Black’s Cira Robinson and José Alves in The Suit by Cathy Marston
© Camilla Greenwell

Cathy Marston’s The Suit for Ballet Black won Best Classical Choreography at the 2018 National Dance Awards and it’s easy to see why. Based on a story about an unfaithful wife by South African author Can Themba, it uses a selection of Kronos Quartet recordings of lively, dance-based music by composers including Kevin Volans, Margarita Lecuona and Charles Ives, stitched together by Philip Feeney who also provides gamelan-esque interludes and the occasional wolf whistle. The set is simple – a chair doubles up as a bed or table, an L-shaped structure represents a shower, a coat hanger, traffic lights. The choreography is classical yet infused with South African social dances. José Alves is wonderful as the cuckolded husband – fleet-footed at the start, but soon physically weighed down by his wife’s betrayal. Cira Robinson is pliant, even bold, as she seduces her lover, but reduced to a shadow when forced to carry her lover’s suit as penance. The suit becomes a permanent presence in their relationship – the third member of a troubled pas de trois.

The five-strong ‘chorus’ are indispensable, scuttling about the stage to embody everyday objects from soap dispensers to alarm clocks, and reflecting the protagonists’ movements as they look into the mirror, but they’re also bystanders: witnesses to the tragedy that’s unfolding but, like all of us watching, powerless to stop it.

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