The enduring success of Britain’s oldest dance company shows little sign of abating. We are now enjoying Rambert’s 91st year, the last fifteen of which have been under the artistic leadership of Mark Baldwin who sustains an unerring ability to curate triple bills that combine the key performance outcomes of entertainment, inspiration and challenge.

This programme is, understandably, heavily focused on the welcome – and overdue – revival of Christopher Bruce’s Ghost Dances, one of the finest works of neoclassical modern dance of the last forty years; but it would be wrong to dismiss the earlier parts of this triple bill as mere supporting acts.

Daniel Davidson, Liam Francis and Juan Gil in Bruce's <i>Ghost Dances</i> © Jane Hobson
Daniel Davidson, Liam Francis and Juan Gil in Bruce's Ghost Dances
© Jane Hobson

Nonetheless, Ghost Dances was the main attraction. Made in 1981 and not performed by Rambert since 2003, it has lost none of its emotional and visual power.   We all know of the Apache, the Comanche and the Navajo; but the Native Americans of the Southern continent are much less familiar. The indigenous Chilean people – now only about 10% of the population – are dominated by the Mapuches of the south but include many other smaller tribes; some teetering on the edge of extinction. Three primitive natives, wearing skull masks and body paint, inhabit Bruce’s own romanticised setting; a jungle canopy framing a distant view of water.

Although inspired by Joan Jara’s biography of her husband, Víctor, a cultural ambassador in the Marxist Government of Salvador Allende who was brutally tortured, and murdered, shortly after the 1973 coup d’état that brought Augusto Pinochet to power, Bruce has been at pains to distance this work from the specifics of Chilean Human Rights (issues he later dealt with more overtly, in Swansong). 20 years’ after making of Ghost Dances, Bruce was awarded Honorary Life Membership of Amnesty International; still, a unique distinction. 

The enormous emotional power of Ghost Dances comes in the juxtaposition of simple people, doing simple things, living and enjoying life through music and dance, but being brutally decimated by the Ghost Dancers; cruelly dashed to the ground or dragged away. Each one, a silent metaphor for the 35,000 Chileans murdered in the aftermath of the coup. Despite the relentless savagery lurking amongst them, there is profound nobility in these villagers, dancing on. 

Daniel Davidson, Liam Francis and Juan Gil in Bruce's <i>Ghost Dances</i> © Jane Hobson
Daniel Davidson, Liam Francis and Juan Gil in Bruce's Ghost Dances
© Jane Hobson

The striking contrasts between the indigenous people’s rituals, the simple folkloric dances of their twentieth century successors and the ever-present threat of kidnap and death are enveloped within a glorious tapestry of South American folk music, arranged by the company’s former musical director, the late Nicholas Mojsiejenko (in whose honour this latest revival of Ghost Dances is dedicated). The unmistakeable Andean sounds of the Pan Pipes mixed with Latin guitar and the evocative singing of Claudia Figueroa gave an extra edge to the chilling impact of a powerful work that ends just when you want it to continue.     

The evening’s world première sprang from the eclectic imagination of Aletta Collins. The days run away like wild horses is her third work for Rambert. The opening sequence, a sort of time-lapse film of 20 characters repeating everyday actions in a single room, was triggered by the inspiration of Zbigniew Rybcyński’s Oscar-winning animated short film, Tango (1983). One by one they build up layers of repetition: throwing a ball, flying a paper aeroplane, lustily making love, getting dressed; even a plumber wanders back and forth, clutching a toilet. Their never-ending rituals signalled the ordinariness of home life, contrasting hugely with Bruce’s evocation of the horrors of a political regime where such everyday actions existed under the constant threat of that knock at the door.  

Following the opening homage to Rybcyński’s film, the walls of the home were wheeled away and the work developed an abstract feel. It had opened on a female dancer, seated at the table, motionless, while the frenetic activity built up around her. Repetitive movement was replaced by repetitive characterisation with the proliferation of identically-dressed clones of this woman and a man, also from the opening scenario. Issues of gender identity came to the fore: men wore the dress and lipstick; women, the jacket and trousers. Although a thoughtful work, with much to commend it in terms of imagination and challenge, it meandered, apparently meaninglessly, towards the end: even resorting to that ubiquitous tactic of dancers running laps around the perimeter of the stage; for me, always the unacceptable pace of contemporary dance.

Brenda Lee Grech and Miguel Altunaga in <i>The 3 Dancers</i> © Tristram Kenton
Brenda Lee Grech and Miguel Altunaga in The 3 Dancers
© Tristram Kenton

The middle work, Didy Veldman’s The 3 Dancers, inspired by Picasso’s eponymous painting, is an interesting exercise of trying to apply cubism to movement, contrasting and interacting a pair of trios, each, two men and a woman, one in black, the other white; vaguely reminiscent of chess but with a Board pierced, progressively, by three reflective shards of glass, like icicles or scissor blades. In this, as in the other two pieces, the extraordinary fluidity and range of movement from Miguel Altunaga and the ebullient athleticism of Simone Damberg Würtz were much to the fore. Although, as the 20 dancers proved in Collins’ opener; Rambert is a company where everyone’s a star.