Founded by Marie Rambert in 1926, Rambert has an inimitable reputation for high-quality contemporary dance. The next phase of development, under the direction of Mark Baldwin, will move the company into a new custom-built home on the London Southbank.

The Castaways (Stephen Wright and Miguel Altunaga) © Chris Nash
The Castaways (Stephen Wright and Miguel Altunaga)
© Chris Nash

Its latest triple bill at Sadler’s Wells is largely bland, but has moments of brilliance, namely in the form of Barak Marshall’s The Castaways. Marshall describes this new work as following “the journey of 12 souls trapped in a kind of no-man’s land – a hell of their own making” and the piece opens with a narrator directly addressing the audience: “We are trapped but we don’t know where.”

The characters are more like caricatures, from a jilted bride to a tempestuous Latin couple and a greedy beggar. The stage set is minimal; a large metal open-ended pipe suspended 15 foot from the ground demanding greatest attention. There is a hint that our unruly band of castaways arrived through said pipe – or perhaps it is their only escape route – as they plead and confront it, alternately begging for release and threatening action.

There are a number of curious scenes to a diverse range of music (with Yiddish Klezmer sitting alongside 1930s New York tunes) arranged by Robert Millett. One moment, dancers are screaming at each other and popping balloons to represent the sound of gunshots; the next they are performing earthy dance moves in unison. It is this mixture of narrative human angst and exhilarating choreography that makes The Castaways such an engaging work.

Marshall’s ideas are not always clear. For example, why do the three mean girls decide to criticise the audience’s hairstyles? But his choreography of detailed hand gestures and striking shapes – evidently inspired by classical Indian dance – is superbly performed by Rambert’s dancers and is a joy to watch.

The bill’s other new work is less successful. Subterrain explores the nature of human relationships to a combination of haunting electronic sounds by Aphex Twin and a discordant orchestral score by Mark-Anthony Turnage, but Ashley Page’s choreography feels overly busy and lacks a sense of conviction.

Designs by Jon Morrell add to the confusion: dancers are dressed in a wide array of un-matching garments, from a kilt and Summer dresses to Chicago-esque transparent black mesh fabric. Peter Mumford’s dark lighting conveys the sense of being underground, but what Page is trying to communicate choreographically is much less clear. Dancers indulge in the work’s movements, but Subterrain fails to inspire.

The evening’s centrepiece, Baldwin’s The Comedy of Change, was created in 2009 to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the publication of ‘On The Origin of Species’. Inspired by Darwin’s theories of evolution, the work has an intriguing opening; dancers clad in black and white lycra emerge from chrysalis-like cocoons.

Later choreography is animalistic but incohesive. There is dynamic crawling and leaping, before one dancer suddenly stops and sits motionless, as aluminium foil is wrapped around his body. Composer Julian Anderson describes in the programme the “strange lengths that some animals will go to attract attention, beyond purely evolutionary needs.” Whether or not Baldwin is exploring this remains a mystery.

Rambert’s dancers are on excellent form and adapt well to the three different movement styles on display in this latest bill. But the company deserve a greater proportion of high-quality choreography with which to display their skills.