'Sometimes you know something has got to change and you feel it in the air...', a voiceover remarks at the start of Jefta van Dinther's Protagonist. The stage is still empty, the scene immersed in a penumbra - see-through enough to catch the industrial scaffolding / dancehall elements of the minimal scenography but dark enough to suggest a shadowy entrance of the dancers. One elucubration after the other, the voice of Elias – a prominent Swedish musician – carries the dancers on the stage, as if it was their conscience speaking through a disquieted lullaby. The head notes of need for change and disruption in search for more authentic human relationships and a manoeuvring out of immobility are all there – Jefta Van Dinther's new creation for the Cullberg Ballet can commence.

Cullberg Ballet rehearsing <i>Protagonist</i> © Courtesy of Fondazione Musica per Roma
Cullberg Ballet rehearsing Protagonist
© Courtesy of Fondazione Musica per Roma

Thanks to the well-deserved success of Plateau Effect, the young Dutch/Swedish choreographer recently became someone upon whom the Cullberg Ballet relies. His return, however, seems less incisive and, somehow, less mature than one would have expected. Marked by Minna Tikkainen's clever lighting designs and a sapient use of beautiful, body-absorbing post-trip hop music by long-time collaborator David Kiers, Protagonist is, in fact, a weird, mixed creature, full of a potential that remains, however, underdeveloped and foiled in avoidable clichés.

The 14 dancers on stage look like party-goers at your average local nightclub, exploring each other with curiosity, lust, envy and sympathy; in the most common of social ritual contexts, they sinuously cluster and decluster, in a flow of fruitless, aborted movements of venture and recoil. 'We are never completely in the present, but we are in a club', states Van Dinther. Thus, the choreographer molds the quality of movement of this solid company and puts it at the service of a study on the many contradictions in individuals as social animals, as they are seen to oscillate between isolation and bond, empathy and narcissism, the clumsily but willfully trying and the failing to connect, trial and error. The scene is like a night out, like in a charmingly drawn-out music video. It is hard to resist the groove, to the point that I find myself thinking the scene embodies how I always wanted people to dance to Massive Attack.

While the choice of the social context is a bit too obvious, the way the scene is crafted is of great and developing visual impact, particularly thanks to the original use of expressive and magnified facial expressions – the return of a classic Cullberg Ballet trait, perhaps. They allow to convey the vast palette of emotions, as well as self-assurances and uncertainties, in a striking manner.

As the end of the first part of this hour-long work approaches, the dancers sink into the red waves of the dancefloor – minimal but great optical illusions -, only to re-emerge more introspective. At times, they face the audience for seemingly interminable, occasionally uncomfortable amounts of time, looking for answers or, perhaps, intimately sharing their muted troubles with the public. One is left to wonder where the revolution is and what it is supposed to stand for. The questions remain unanswered until the very end. Unless the point is precisely that of illustrating the urge for a change and bond in humans clashing with the inability to grasp how one should proceed, this is part of the problem in Protagonist.

In the second half of the work, Elias' calls for a momentum in change intensify but they do not translate into concrete action, as the choreography remains static in its consolidated dynamic. A beautiful, silent moment of the passing of a new gesture from one dancer to another, like a fluid seed planted in the people we know, seems to lead somewhere; alas, it remains aborted, lost in a safe but tedious return to identical patterns of clustering and declustering, until the cast strips naked and spends the last 10 minutes of the show walking around like primates and stormed by wonderful electronic sounds. Whether hanging from the metallic club bars, socialising or isolated within their own spirals of inner turmoil, they face the same issues as the club culture, indicating – according to Van Dinther – that there is no such thing as a return to nature in the purest sense of the term.

Sadly, such an end for Protagonist was the worst part. Nudity is not an isolated case in contemporary dance, so it needs to be done lyrically and meaningfully in order to really convey something intriguing and worthwhile. Otherwise, it risks resulting null and clumsy, as well as, in this specific case, a poorly developed analysis concluding a work that oscillates between intriguing possibilities and in-cohesive, at times superficial developments.

Surely, the roman evening demonstrated that Jefta Van Dinther is a young choreographer with intriguing potential. His ability to craft on groups and introduce an original approach to facial expression gives hope for the future. Here is hoping that he will be able to delve deeper into the emotional and conceptual implications of his work and convey something more articulate, without the need to recur to 'shock tactics' that are far too common, therefore not so shocking anymore.

***11