The curtains open on The Rodin Project to reveal a large, irregularly shaped set draped in flowing white cloth. It hangs from the ceiling in icy sheets, reflective of the snowy landscape of the theatre’s exterior. Characters begin to emerge in the growing light, crawling and scampering slowly across the jagged stage. Clad only in shorts the men’s highly-sculpted bodies are exposed – Maliphant’s first nod to Rodin. The men occasionally show off their strength, which is certainly impressive, whilst the women do little else than lie or slink siren-like around the space. The music speaks of eastern exoticism and builds a sense of impending drama which the dance in all its quiet consistency never entirely acknowledges. The closest it ever gets is an aggressive duet between two of the male dancers who chase each other and engage in capoeira-esque combat. The duet is, however, far too choreographed to be truly exciting; it is rarely rough around the edges, and the moves seem thrown in to impress rather than to express.

© Charlotte MacMillan
© Charlotte MacMillan

The movement is obviously inspired by the master sculptor. The dancers shift through positions reminiscent of Rodin’s work, not always lingering, probably in an attempt at subtlety. Unfortunately the positions are too recognisable not to stick out noticeably amidst the contemporary and street dance vocabularies. Eventually the curtain closes, on the troupe reclining as though modelling for a sculptor.

The second half shows a marked improvement. Gone are the white drapes and the costumes reminiscent of Ancient Greece or Rome. In their place is a harder set, previously hidden, with slight reminiscence of a skate park, truly a dancer’s playground. Gone too are the clear gender roles. The women are finally given licence to dance alongside the men.

This half is episodic in its nature. Each scene is clearly distinct: each with a blackout before and after it, and each with its own driving idea. In one a woman poses nude in dim light, whilst in another the dancers follow one another in a kind of conga line, navigating the peaks and troughs of the stage with deft skill and impressive tricks. The highlight is a duet that takes place on a tall vertical wall between Tommy Franzén, runner-up on TV show So You Think You Can Dance in 2012, and Dickson Mbi, a popping champion. The two dancers seem oblivious to the effects of gravity as they climb the wall. Simple movements are done with immense control whilst more impressive feats show off an incredible virtuosity and power, a world apart from the balletic tricks that dance theatre-goers usually admire, but just as amazing. The duet distorts perspective. At times it feels like it is being watched from a bird’s eye view.

The Rodin Project attempts to fuse two dance styles: street dance and contemporary. This is by no means new territory for the dance world. Many an enthusiastic choreographer has made a piece exploring the merging of forms in an attempt to be groundbreaking. Whether it's hip hop and ballet or kathak and contemporary, most have failed. Those who have succeeded (notably Akhram Khan) appear to have recognised that such a collision should not form the concept of a piece but be the medium through which it is explored. Maliphant, formerly unversed in street dance, too seems to recognise this. He turned to street dance in an attempt to better represent the spirit of Rodin’s work, desiring the weight that his contemporary vocabulary was lacking.

Nevertheless, Maliphant’s synthesis of the two dance vocabularies is not always successful. None of the dancers combine them as well as Dickson Mbi, who steals the show. His long extensions and painfully contorted popping brings a contemporary edge to hip hop and a hip hop edge to contemporary, without feeling contrived. Dickson appears to embody the qualities of each style and allow new vocabulary to arise from that; the others simply shackle old vocabulary from each technique in new combinations and sequences.

In all, the piece is not an overwhelming success and feels a little unfinished. But I admire Maliphant for having the bravery to stick his neck out and try something new. Experimentation is never a bad thing.