Kudos to Rambert for attempting something novel during this difficult year with the world premiere of Wim Vandekeybus’ Draw from Within, a new work that was live-streamed over three days for performances aimed, respectively, at audiences in Korea, Europe and New York. I caught the latter, which meant (watching in the UK) a 1am start; definitely a first for me in 20 years’ of reviewing dance!

Salomé Pressac
© Camilla Greenwell

Thankfully, those wee small hours of the morning were sufficiently enlivened by a work that had enough switches of mood and direction to keep me alert and ward off the natural tendency to sleep. Vandekeybus, a Belgian choreographer and filmmaker, made full use of the company’s Southbank studios, in a surreal journey that took in the rooftop, the corridors, the studios and even the loading bay with areas disguised to represent diverse spaces such as sinister dungeons and a bizarre TV studio.

After a lengthy opening statement to attest to the methodology used to protect all concerned from Covid-19, the film opened on a young girl (Olive Engler) drawing, before moving briefly to two men on the roof and a recitation of Ted Hughes’ poem, Conjuring in Heaven, in which the word “nothing” is repeated ten times in eleven lines. Unless I have missed something fundamental, the poem appears not to give much of a clue to the succeeding events, which started with a nightmarish sense of confinement and performers lighting matches held between their lips. Smoke is a leitmotif through the early part of the piece, which is a quickfire collection of random scenes (a boy riding a bicycle is beaten; a woman composes equations on a wall; another brandishes a large knife).

Liam Francis
© Camilla Greenwell

It was awhile before dance overcame the horror imagery, but it came at a rush with a superb solo by Liam Francis and the eclectic soundtrack developed a Balkan flavour as the dance assumed a frenetic urgency. A lighter mood then intervened with a mix of female vocals and whistling as the group dance became a distorted lament. The camera honed in on a well-dressed young woman (Salomé Pressac) who seemed disconnected with events before dancing flirtatiously to soul music but her mood switched quickly to anxiety as the main studio was suddenly festooned with ropes on pulleys, which were held in tension by the performers. Dressed in black, Aishwarya Raut was trapped by the ropes as Hannah Rudd broke into a frantic solo.

Aishwarya Raut
© Camilla Greenwell

Some of the dancers painted images on brown paper affixed to panels and, magically, a tree and an octopus appeared with the dancer/artists integrated within the painting. After an interlude with an old-fashioned telephone exchange, Raut appeared with a male dancer (Max Day) clinging, upside-down, to her torso, approximating a pregnant belly. After the “birth”, he became a miracle child, riding a tricycle within hours and then driving  a car! An impressed and voluble TV journalist (Daniel Davidson) quickly changed his tune when the car drove into him (“call my lawyers”).  Unfortunately, the miracle child’s rapid development soon led to patricide as he shot his father (Guillaume Quéau) with a rifle cleverly contrived through the use of a dancer’s leg.

A group leitmotif infected the dance moves, firstly in repetitive sequences of two small steps back and a jump to the side, thrusting the torso forwards, to very noisy and discordant progressive rock music; and then with a reversed pattern of the same movement motif (jumping backwards and stepping forwards) while some of the dancers hung from hooks above the studio floor. The final section of the work was dominated by Kym Sojourna, firstly as one of the TV reporters and then as a patient alone in a corridor; a nightmare sequence of events ended when a large plastic bag placed next to her camp bed at the junction of two corridors turned out to contain a woman with a knife. After 70 minutes of this torrent of surreal and unpredictable imagery, the whole affair terminated abruptly with a swinging light.

Conor Kerrigan (foreground), Max Day, Jacob Wye and Miguel Altunaga
© Camilla Greenwell

In the early hours of the morning, my enjoyment was curtailed by the necessity of keeping the volume low – largely because elements of the eclectic soundtrack were inordinately loud – and, in consequence, I missed some of the spoken text. The work has an explosive impact that was not at its best in the chill-out hours! It was very professionally staged and filmed, particularly in terms of the cameras being amongst the dancers, within the performing space, and yet they were (almost) always hidden from sight (Vandekeybus’ combined skills as both choreographer and filmmaker were clearly evident). The mix of darkness and humour was well balanced and the Rambert dancers were – as one expects – superb, throwing themselves into every ask with expressive tenacity. Draw from Within is a colourful dream, nightmarish in parts, which seemed to be just right for these strange times.

This performance was reviewed from the Rambert video stream.