The close relationship that composer Igor Stravinsky and choreographer George Balanchine maintained for decades is one of the creative impetus that most influenced Western Dance in of the Twentieth Century. Together, they produced ballets in which the interdependence between music and dance was at the heart of the creative process. This collaboration has now inspired the Sadler's Wells series  ‘See the Music, Hear the Dance’ (well-known words by Balanchine) and the four works in the Thomas Adès programme provided the exciting opportunity to check the validity of the formula for four contemporary choreographers: Wayne McGregor, Karole Armitage, Alexander Whitley and Crystal Pite. In an epoch where the music is too often a mere ornament to the dance, the outcome of the evening did not disappoint. The four different choreographic approaches to the rich, complex music of composer Thomas Adès offered an enjoyable variety of creative responses.

<i>Life Story</i> , Armitage Gone Dance © Henry Leutwyer
Life Story , Armitage Gone Dance
© Henry Leutwyer
The inspirational Stravinsky/Balanchine partnership felt very present in Wayne McGregor’s Outlier (2010). Created for the New York City Ballet and inspired by the minimalists’ notions of geometric simplification and colour  theory, the piece contain moments of correlation between music and dance that recall the best instances of collaboration between the two Russian masters. McGregor’s choreography –more stimulating than his latest creations for the Royal Ballet and Random Dance company – contains a wide range of dialogues with Adès’ violin concerto Concentric Paths. Responding to different aspects of the music (to its texture, its gestures, its dynamics...), that variety makes the piece alive and very interesting to watch. It is full of unexpected findings and surprising concurrences. The most fascinating feature of the work is, however, the perfect harmony that seems to exist between the two artistic minds. Both the musician and the choreographer seem to share the same philosophy of experimenting with their medium, testing its limits and trying new expressive possibilities.   

The second work in the bill, Karole Armitage’s Life Story (1999), is a sophisticated duet to Adès’ setting (of the same name) to a poem by Tennessee Williams. With sharp humour, the lyrics tell the story of a couple that spends a night together in a hotel. Armitage uses her dance to complement the narration, with expressive movements and gestural choreographic sentences. Avoiding a mere visualization of the story, the dance deepens the meaning of the words, enriching the story and occasionally commenting on its development. The choreography is also imbued with a subtle touch of humour that I felt the two dancers that evening could have exploited more effectively. They looked a bit shy in their interpretation, especially in contrast to the vivid expressivity of soprano Claire Booth, also on stage, eloquently singing by the piano.

In rehearsal for Whitley's <i>The Grit in the Oyster</i> © Jane Hobson
In rehearsal for Whitley's The Grit in the Oyster
© Jane Hobson

The musicians were also on stage, visible to the audience, for the third piece of the programme, speciually commissionned The Grit in the Oyster by Alexander Whitley. A trio set to Adès’s Piano Quintet, the work builds on the atmosphere created by the music, attempting to find a space within it for the dance. Whitley certainly achieves that effect in some sequences of the choreography where the dance provides either a striking similarity to or an interesting counterpart to the music. However, Whitley does not manage to maintain that level of creativity during the whole piece. He seems a choreographer still in the search of a personal choreographic voice and in some of the passages the music overshadows the dance.

The bill concluded with the second commission for the programme, Crystal Pite’s Polaris (2014), which proved a remarkable response to the grandiose magnificence of Adès’ orchestral piece (of the same name)(. It is performed by sixty four dancers that Pite arranges in a big formation that seems to have a life and a personality of its own. Matching the combination of cosmic force and human fragility in the score, this big ensemble possesses a presence of overwhelming power that also allows occasional fragmentations into smaller units going momentary away in search for quieter, more intimate experiences. Pite’s movement vocabulary is made of fast, precise movements that very smoothly flow into beautiful unhurried expressive gestures. Both the big and smaller creatures look touchingly alive and responsive, a notable merit in a piece that is aurally and kinetically invested with epic resonances.  

In Rehearsal for Pite's <i>Polaris</i> © Chris Randle
In Rehearsal for Pite's Polaris
© Chris Randle

Overall, ‘See the Music, Hear the Dance’ was a stimulating exploration of the relaionships between music and dance; that included the rare treat of having the composer himself playing the piano and conducting the orchestra (the much celebrated Britten Sinfonia). Adès’ presence gave immediacy and warm visibility to the music that inspired the evening.