Another day in isolation, another bid to find joy in my lone state-sanctioned walk. (Pro tip: stay out longer than is interesting or comfortable to brighten the prospect of another 20-plus hours indoors.) For dance critics, the C-19 crisis and its mass theatre shutdown has triggered some major thumb-twiddling. Like our exercise classes and therapy sessions, it’s time to go digital.
Ballet DVDs and cinema broadcasts have been in the mix for a while, but it’s taken the abolition of live performances to spike serious interest in dance streaming. In the face of indefinite closure, Sadler’s Wells has shifted its programme to the web where possible, starting with a new bill from BalletBoyz, recorded just before the cancellation of the all-male troupe’s 20th-anniversary tour. To lend a sense of occasion, Sadler’s aired the show on Facebook at the time it would have opened in London. I tried to replicate the experience of watching it live by keeping my jeans buckled for the whole event. Routine is a virtue in times of uncertainty.
Deluxe introduces new work from three experimental female choreographers, including Maxine Doyle, who twists some dark lyrics by the poet Kate Tempest into a stylish saga about a night owl named Bradley. The Boyz take turns channelling different incarnations of this enigmatic bruiser, who sports a crumpled suit and a black eye: Bradley as a lush, staggering through a sea of jazz hands; Bradley in paranoia mode, rattling off panicked monologues about dinner. Liam Riddick’s goth spin is a highlight, a fever dream of black lipstick and groovy strutting. Cassie Kinoshi’s brass-heavy score glints with élan, spicing up the mood even as the grind turns dark.
There’s only six of them, but this company’s always had the presence of a bigger group. Nestled in a corner upstage, the camera exaggerates this effect, swerving between limbs and faces to showcase a pulsing, shifting throng of bodies. It also lingers on close-ups, highlighting the dancers’ twisted lips and bug-eyed expressions. Watching through this lens feels like an advantage, not a concession.
Xie Xin’s Ripple is a serene counterpart, replacing Doyle’s aggravated manoeuvres with smooth, rippling arms and cradled heads. It’s not relaxed, exactly — the choreography gathers speed with the urgency of a quickening pulse — but the flowing movement vocabulary keeps things meditative, even when torsos thrust and legs sail. Will Thompson is rock-steady in his balances, while Matthew Sandiford shifts his weight like a tide slurping at the coast. The camerawork is fine, though the piece shines in spite of it, not because of it. The energy here is radiant, even through the screen.
Some extras already slated to accompany Deluxe, including behind-the-scenes interviews and a bouncy dance film from Sarah Golding, bring a dash of extra flair. Contrast this with the frills-free recording of Rosie Kay’s 5 Soldiers, livestreamed from an army drill hall back in 2017 and now available on YouTube. As with Ripple, it’s evidence that an excellent performance can transcend the limits of the laptop.
The production has been restaged and reworked several times since its 2010 première, though the original concept endures: brothers and sisters in arms, sharing the rigours of training and the perils of combat. I personally find the incursion of parallels between war and coronavirus exhausting — no, this isn’t the Blitz — but the themes of Kay’s piece have definite resonance in the face of disease: the importance of leadership and comradery; the resilience and fallibility of the body.
Under her incisive vision, fastidious marching exercises morph into a tessellation of extensions and pirouettes, lunges and waltzes. The group moves with the grace of a dressage quadrille, steering each other with equal parts precision and polish. It’s a stimulating reminder of the choreography of military life — the patterns of the marches themselves, but also the reliance on every soldier to know their mark.
One advantage the camera has here is laying bare the dancers’ laboured breathing and sweaty brows, a by-product that’s surprisingly energising (and not always perceptible in dance, sometimes by design). Whether they’re pacing like machines or diving like swans, the enterprise is irrefutably human.
Clicking ‘play’ on your MacBook will never spark the same thrill as settling into a hushed auditorium, curtain rising. It’s helpful to think about a digital show less as a substitute and more as a bonus — a chance to broaden your viewership without the restrictions of location or cost. The sudden migration of dance to the web has come from necessity, not some collective demand to democratise the dance sphere, though with time it may have that effect, especially as old works become newly available. Companies the world over will be mourning lost profits this year, but new audiences could prove a boon in the long run.
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