Past Present was exactly what it said on the label. Separated by an interval, the first two works were historic re-enactments; and the final pair, world premieres. The Yorke Dance Project shares with the Viviana Durante Dance Company (and precious few others) this mission of reviving historic work alongside the presentation of innovative choreography that carries the flames of that legacy forward into new generations and both companies do it very well. 

The torchbearer in the case of the Yorke Dance Project is the indefatigable Yolande Yorke-Edgell and she opened this programme with her faithful representation of one of the great modern dance solos of the early 20th century, Martha Graham’s Lamentation. This signature piece, which embodies the essence of grief, premiered in January 1930 in New York at the height of The Great Depression. That it is so brief – less than five minutes – adds to the power of its punch. The mournful Piano Piece no. 2 composed by Zoltán Kodály kicks in after a silent opening, cued by a movement of the dancer’s foot; but the visual impact of the work lies in the tubular, stretched purple garment from which only Yorke Edgell’s head, hands and feet were generally visible.

Yolande Yorke-Edgell in Canciones del Alma (2015)
© Pari Naderi

Yorke-Edgell created an arresting, elegiac performance of Graham’s largely seated movement dynamic that developed memorable imagery through the shapes and patterns made in the stretched purple material shrouding her body. It is a remarkable work with diverse suggestions of maternity and religious lamentation, the latter having huge resonance with the images of grieving women by the Russian émigré artist Marevna (many painted at the same time as Graham made Lamentation). Congratulations to Yorke-Edgell for this timely reminder of Graham’s genius and for performing the piece with such perspicacious clarity.  

The second dip into history was an update and revival of Kenneth MacMillan’s Sea of Troubles, which Yorke Dance first performed in the intimacy of the Clore Studio at the Royal Opera House back in 2017, part of a series of dance programmes to mark the 25th anniversary of the choreographer’s death. Sea of Troubles is unique as a late MacMillan ballet but created in the chamber style that characterised his early choreography. It is in an intimate and pared-down style that reflects the economies required at its creation (it was made for Dance Advantage, a small and short-lived touring company formed by dancers who had formerly been with The Royal Ballet). With the mutual subject-matter of Shakespearian tragedy, it reminds me stylistically of José Limón’s The Moor’s Pavane: the latter being a quartet based upon Othello, while Sea of Troubles is a sextet loosely inspired by Hamlet

There are clear reference points to Hamlet (the title comes from a phrase in the Prince’s soliloquy: “to take arms against a sea of troubles”), although MacMillan deconstructs the story by inter-changing characters amongst the dancers, which can be confusing if one makes the mistake of trying to follow the action with any regard to a linear understanding. 

Freya Jeffs and Edd Mitton dependably reprised their roles from 2017 and were joined by Ellie Ferguson, Oxana Panchenko, Luke Ahmet and Nicholas Shikkis to comprise an outstanding ensemble where the group’s co-ordinated movement dynamic was the main strength. Many congratulations to Yorke Dance Project for keeping such a work of historic significance alive in performance.   

Sir Robert Cohan in rehearsal with Yorke Dance Project in 2015
© David McCormick

Although already presented on film, Sir Robert Cohan’s Afternoon Conversations with Dancers was enjoying its stage premiere, and as his final work it will have its own historical significance. Made partially in the studio and then post-covid over Zoom, the work has its own deconstructed theme since it consists of eight solos but only five are ever danced in one performance allowing for a significant number of permutations. A wistful solo by Mitton was a powerful beginning and the closing neoclassical piece by Romany Padjak had a similar arresting impact; in between there was a fast-paced energetic burst by Pierre Tappon and two gentler dances for Jeffs and Yorke-Edgell. In Cohan’s eye, each solo seemed to take on the personality of its performer and perhaps the eclectic spectrum of costumes had a similar role, although for me the diverse range from tight-fitting, blue leotard to red satin party dress seemed as if the dancers had raided a fancy dress jumble sale.

Romany Pajdak in Robert Cohan's Afternoon Conversations with Dancers
© Pierre Tappon

Performed by the whole ensemble from the earlier works plus Abigail Attard Montalto, So It Is, the evening’s final piece, was an intensely personal reflection on Yorke-Edgell’s close association with Cohan in the last years of his life and in the language that he knew best – choreography. It is a flowing stream of varied dances among which Yorke-Edgell’s own duets with Mitton are standout highlights. This thoughtful and serious series of dances will certainly repay many repeat viewings. The programme was dedicated to the memory of Hazel Yorke-Edgell who was clearly a subliminal inspiration for all that we experienced. 

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