Dance

Crystal Pite tore the house down: Royal Opera's 21st-Century Choreographers reviewed

5 June 2021

9:00 AM

5 June 2021

9:00 AM

English National Ballet – Reunion

Sadler’s Wells

21st-Century Choreographers

Royal Opera House, and on demand as a livestream until 27 June at roh.org.uk

The choreographers called on to get the nation’s dancers back on to the stage have as much to say about the state of our times as they do about art.

Many of the works were created during the pandemic. English National Ballet’s Reunion started life as a series of dance films that were streamed last winter; with the opening of theatres, ENB’s artistic director Tamara Rojo asked the choreographers to adapt them for live staging. Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s Laid in Earth was the most moving; a portrait of man coming to terms with impending death, whether his own or his lover’s. To a live performance of ‘Dido’s Lament’, four dancers — at times two couples and at times an individual with his/her shadow — tangle and detangle themselves from each other, coil, prop up, before falling away. One is a figure in black, reptilian-like in his writhing and twisting on the floor. Is he Death? Purcell’s spare tones give way to trance-like beats that fuel an achingly sexy duet for two male dancers; whirling movements mirroring one another suggest we are always partly in the underworld. It was mesmerisingly beautiful — I could have watched it again and again.

Russell Maliphant’s Echoes shared the hypnotic nature of Laid in Earth but his tribe of dancers appeared to actually be trapped underground, shafts of light barely making their way down to them, a pack of bodies churning away to clanking beats. An ominous glimpse into some never-ending torture chamber? Revolving and shifting patterns of light reduce the bodies to mere cogs in a dizzying universe; tiny pieces of matter that don’t matter… This was dance-making at its most raw, primitive and enthralling.


Above ground, the Royal Ballet dancers performed the world première of Kyle Abrahams’s cheekily titled Optional Family: a divertissement. It, too, seemed to be the product of lockdown; a relationship has soured and in comes a new temptation…. This was sexy, racy stuff performed to an exhilaratingly fraught electronic score by Nidia Borges and Grischa Lichtenberger.

Offering a more beautiful portrait of love was Christopher Wheeldon. Within the Golden Hour, created for San Francisco Ballet in 2008, delivers one couple after another basking in the glow of love. Whether wanton abandonment, tender worshipping or playful teasing, Wheeldon seems single-handedly to have upped the language of classical ballet into something that speaks to us today. And not only do his dancers communicate something real, they also make the most dazzlingly classy shapes on the stage, their creator weaving their stories in and out of stylish block movement. The work unlocked lockdown for me in one fell swoop.

Sharing Wheeldon’s voltage is Canadian choreographer Crystal Pite. Her dance-drama The Statement, first created for Nederlands Dans Theater in 2016, practically tore the Royal Opera House down. Four suited dancers collect around a boardroom table to discuss ‘the conflict’ and the role they have played in it, before tearing each other to pieces over who should take the rap and how to do it.

Pite uses dancers as puppets, gesticulating wildly to a voiced soundtrack, to offer a perspective on man that’s so heightened and over-articulated the viewer can hardly keep up. Her portrait of this odious and slippery bunch,who cling to and crawl around over the table, is timely.

Accompanying Pite’s The Statement was Solo Echo, again created for NDT. This poetic musing on the nature of winter sees seven dancers move under a snow-filled sky — a tumbling, desperate throng, huddled together, clinging on for dear life. I defy anyone to take their eyes off Cesar Corrales as he hurls himself about the stage with beautiful brutality.

Back at Sadler’s Wells, three more choreographers’ lockdown works wrapped things up; Yuri Possokhov’s Senseless Kindness, Stina Quagebeur’s Take Five Blues and Cuban-born newbie Arielle Smith’s Jolly Folly. Smith delivered a coup-de-théâtre in her pack of penguin-styled dancers, strutting about the stage Chaplin-like to Cubanised versions of The Blue Danube and ‘Sugar Plum Fairy’. ‘I wanted to create total escapism,’ Smith said. By heavens, she did.

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