Rambert seasons at Sadler’s Wells have been familiar events for many years but this spring programme represented a radical new direction. The UK’s oldest dance company – just seven years’ shy of its centenary – is now striking out to be its most progressive. After sixteen years’ direction by Mark Baldwin, the artistic mantle has passed to Benoit Swan Pouffer (who inherits the job with 10 years’ leadership experience at New York’s Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet). At first sight, this programme suggests a significant strategic shift in the direction of ground-breaking, eclectic, futuristic marriages of dance and music with little or no narrative structure. That this is a new broom sweeping “clean” seems also to be clear from the associated turnover in personnel. The dancers featured in this programme are fewer than usual (just 14) and some performers from the end of the Baldwin era are now notably absent.

Guillaume Quéau in <i>Rouge</i> © Johan Persson
Guillaume Quéau in Rouge
© Johan Persson

As a manifesto for Pouffer’s new artistic era, this triple Bill is a mixed bag. The experimental credentials are strongly evident in a loud and exciting new work, Rouge by French choreographer Marion Motin that is like nothing else on the UK dance scene today. But, on the other hand, it was enveloped on this programme by two existing pieces from Wayne McGregor and Hofesh Schechter that may once have been considered as pioneering but trailed their blaze, long ago. McGregor’s PreSentient was made on Rambert in 2002 (just before Baldwin’s tenure); and Schechter’s In Your Rooms was created for his own company, back in 2007; a key work in establishing the unique atmosphere and style of Shechter’s integration of movement, music (this score created in collaboration with Neil Catchpole) and (his own) self-inquiring spoken text.

The highlight of the evening, by some considerable margin, was the new work by Motin. What a find she is! A dancer (for Angelin Preljocaj amongst others) with her own performance collective (Swaggers), which seems tilted towards the street, and strong credentials in commercial dance (pop videos for Dua Lipa and Christine and the Queens; plus Fashion Freak Show for Jean-Paul Gautier). Rouge starts with the post-Armageddon imagery of a low misty haze and an electric guitarist (Rubén Martinez) – apparently a throw back to 70s rock (The Old Grey Whistle Test, Jethro Tull and even Roy Wood of Wizard sprang to mind) – with smoke issuing from his hat, as if this “Guy” had narrowly escaped the bonfire.

<i>Rouge</i> © Johan Persson
Rouge
© Johan Persson

The haze begins to reveal lumps, which turn out to be seven dancers (eclectically costumed, in a sartorial mix from sporty spice to Boy George, by Yann Seabra) who – in an opening section that was longer than needed – stand up and fall down in various permutations. Five minutes of this and I was far from convinced, although hooked from then by an arresting array of lactic-acid-sapping, hi-energy gesture and movement, driven relentlessly by Mika Luna’s infectious score. Rouge may not be a classic but it certainly blew the cobwebs away.

The return of PreSentient was a welcome revival and it was skilfully transferred onto this new generation of Rambert dancers. It is performed to – and driven by – the three movements of Steve Reich’s Triple Quartet, performed live by an excellent small string orchestra, led by Richard George. The opening, dislocated solo, given an illusory mystery by Lucy Carter’s excellent lighting, was a tour de force by Edit Domoszlai, who together with Simone Damberg Würtz and Nancy Nerantzi presented a strong, female force in both this and Rouge. The equivalent male team (present in all three works) was led by Miguel Altunaga and featured Daniel Davidson, Liam Francis and Juan Gil.

<i>PreSentient</i> © Johan Persson
PreSentient
© Johan Persson

As borrowed clothing goes, In Your Rooms provided a neat, tailored fit for these Rambert dancers (and vice versa) but I fail to see what value is to be gained by the transfer of a dated, familiar work to be performed by a different company. The imploring voiceover from the choreographer (“Let’s start again, I can do better”, followed, after a pause, by “…no, I can’t) still raises a laugh and speaks to blocked choreographers everywhere; and the mix of thumping music and ebullient, group movement is undeniably compulsive. But, re-running a borrowed work from 2007 is anything but experimental, bold, innovative or pioneering and so one wonders just how it fits the new vision.

Dance boundaries have become intractably blurred. The world of choreography is now so mix-and-match that the same choreographers are swapped around companies like a trading card game. Both McGregor and Shechter have their own companies, invested exclusively with their own choreographic (and musical) identities, and both make work elsewhere (including, of course, The Royal Ballet). At least with Motin, Pouffer has injected some original thinking into this largely stale, male world.

***11