Ten years ago, Sadler’s Wells started its associate artists programme, becoming a dance house that not only exhibits but also produces dance. The attractive triple bill presented this week, The Associates, included new works by three of the creative artists currently in association with the theatre: Kate Prince, Crystal Pite and Hofesh Shechter. All three took the opportunity to take their choreography into new territories, and although the outcome of that experimentation was not entirely effective in all three cases, The Associates proved to be a varied and stimulating programme well fitted to celebrate Sadler’s Wells initiative in fostering creativity.

The evening opened with Prince’s SMILE (2015), a work for one dancer (hip hop dancer Tommy Franzén) inspired by Charlie Chaplin’s song ‘Smile’. With a combination of hip hop dance and the well-known iconography and gestures of the actor, the piece investigates the conflict between his public, comic side and his more complex, private self. Prince’s choreography alternates bright, funny passages with darker episodes where Chaplin’s inner struggles emerge to challenge his image of joviality. Despite her intentions to dwell largely on the grounds of hidden, private emotions, Prince is not convincing in the expressivity she tries to embed in her choreography. Although her blend of hip hop and Chaplin-esque movements is sometimes effective, her exploration of the psychological and emotional aspects of the actor seems to scratch the surface only. Franzén’s performance gave the impression of a similar lack of depth since the physical aspects of his portrayal (with clear, precise and even occasionally acrobatic steps) failed to convey Chaplin's private anxieties nor the poignancy and deep humanity of his public persona.    

Crystal Pite’s A Picture of You Falling (2015) provided a better-rounded rendering of human experience. An intimate duet that contrasts with the cosmic beauty of Polaris (2014) –her work that premièred a few months ago in the Thomas Adès programme, also at Sadler’s Wells – Pite’s work for The Associates programme stems from a duet of The Second Person (2007), a larger work created for Nederlands Dans Theater. A Picture of You Falling stands now on its own as an exploration of memory that depicts a woman’s recollections of one night she spent with a former lover. The choreography very successfully combines text, music, lighting and dance to convey the repetitive, selective and subjective workings of the mind. With a voice-over narrator that tells the story through a few simple, repeated sentences that describe and complement the action onstage, the work narrates the intense encounter with the nebulous precision of a recalling mind. The dance movements possess a similar selective quality too, with sharp, precise and fast moments that often end in brief pauses; stressing different parts of the body (a hip, a hand, a head) as they are mentioned by the narrator. Part of the success of the kinetic vocabulary resides in the performance of dancers Peter Chu and Anne Plamondon, who transmitted the elusive but vivid quality of the story neatly and convincingly.   

Coincidentally, a female voice-over narrator plays an important role in Hofesh Shechter’s the barbarians in love (2015) too. She articulates simple, also occasionally repeated sentences that closely relate to the movements on stage and her voice is an important part of the score of the piece. At the heart of the work, she maintains a metafictional dialogue with Shechter himself, in which he points out the artificiality of the dance product and comments on its purpose and the reactions it provokes in the audience. This way of integrating dance and text is not new in Shechter’s repertory but it acquires here a more central role. The lines in the female voice and the comments by the choreographer become the primary focus at certain moments, taking the attention away from the dancers. The music, too, contributes to build the dramaturgy of the work in a slightly different way in the barbarians in love. Formed mainly by François Couperin’s Les Concerts Royaux (1722) plus a few excerpts composed by Shechter, the score abandons the forcefulness of previous works, yet retains its powerful presence through more lyrical, quieter means. Shechter’s dance vocabulary shows some evolution too. Although the fast-pace, energetic steps typical of his style are still at the core of the choreography, his phrases are shorter and the references to folk dancing largely replaced by ballet or baroque dancing. There are moments of stillness and the dark/bright contrasts in the lighting remain familiar devices that Shechter uses here again to explore, in his oblique but blunt way, recurrent themes of his repertory: the individual vs the group, the personal vs the communal, vulnerable solitude vs confident , passionate, urgent alliances.