An evening of works by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Russell Maliphant and Arthur Pita
Sadler’s Wells, London
June 30, 2016
Once upon a time there was an exceptional ballerina who wanted to expand her horizons, so she put together a programme of contemporary dance, including a duet by Russell Maliphant. Sound familiar? Not Sylvie Guillem however, although it is impossible not to draw comparisons, but Natalia Osipova. And the two are very different, not least because Osipova is taking this step while still only 29, and while still dancing the roles that are the heights of classical technique. Indeed, only the week before this Sadler’s Wells premiere of three new works she danced Giselle with The Royal Ballet in Japan. Unfortunately though, and after starting very promisingly, it was an evening that didn’t fully deliver.
Best of the three works is the opening Qutb by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, a trio for Osipova, James O’Hara (so outstanding in Cherkaoui’s Faun) and American Jason Kittelberger, formerly of Cedar Lake Contemporary Dance and others. It starts with an explosion of sound, and a black disc appearing over glowing red sun – an Arabic word, ‘qutb’ can be used to refer to celestial movements, although more regularly translates as axis or pivot. There is a strong suggestion of a natural disaster however. A sense of desolation is magnified by a soundscape that includes animalistic cries and faint tolling bells. Together they conjure up a vision of a bleak emptiness.
The threesome appear to be on a trek through the wasteland. Their bodies often move as one. A brighter section is followed by a solo for O’Hara that is all circles; legs, arms, pathways, everything. It sucks you in but better is to come in the shape of a sumptuously sensual duet for Osipova and Kittelberger in which the couple never lose contact as their bodies intertwine. Nothing seems forced. The dance flows naturally, including any number of innovative lifts and supports, some of which involve one of the men holding the other two dancers. Strength indeed. It ends with the return of the full sun, and yet there is the feeling that their journey, and their travails, have only just begun. Japanese designer Kimie Nakano costumes of mottled light blue trousers for all three and a nude top for her are simple but effective, allowing the dance and dancers to be seen at their best.
Russell Maliphant’s Silent Echo takes the structure of a classical pas de deux – duet, solo, solo, duet – albeit in extended form. It goes without saying that Michael Hulls’ lighting plays an important part in proceedings, especially in the opening when Osipova and Sergei Polunin appear independently in different parts of the stage, their movement echoing each other. When they come together there’s a lot of mutual support, contact improvisation style, but neither ever looks entirely happy, the dance lacking Maliphant’s usual fluidity.
Osipova and Polunin’s ballet backgrounds are very evident all evening but most so here. His dance in particular is full of high and light balletic leaps. The dance may be billed as contemporary but he especially can’t escape the classical. As much as the conscious mind may want to be contemporary, one senses a body that just wants to scream “I am a classical dancer really” – and with a huge capital ‘C’. The result is a mix that doesn’t always sit comfortably with the underlying mood.
As pointed out recently on these pages, sometimes dance needs silence before or after, or both, either to set the mood or give things a chance to sink in. Presumably ‘setting the mood’ was in the mind of whoever decided interval music was a good thing before Arthur Pita’s Run Mary Run. Not only did it fail on that score, not least because it’s all very different from how the piece opens, it became increasingly annoying as it got louder and louder to the point where normal conversation was impossible.
While not as enticing dance-wise as Qutb, Pita’s work is the easiest of the three to get a handle on, not least because it has a clear narrative. It opens extremely promisingly, Osipova emerging from the grave, zombie-like, draped in black. The mind invariably drifts back to Giselle, albeit this is a very much darker. Casting off her cloak, she returns to pull Polunin from the same burial plot. To a soundtrack of songs by The Shangri-Las, The Crystals and David Lynch, mixed well by Frank Moon, the love affair that led to the grave is then replayed.
Osipova is a fine actress but Run Mary Run is not the best of vehicles, matters not being helped by neither character having much depth (unlike in, say, Pita’s Facada, also for Osipova). As always, Pita is dramatically inventive but too often the relationship neither felt nor looked real. Among the moments of humour is a sixties-style dance, but it does little more than raise a smile. Other instances don’t work as well as they might either. It didn’t help that neither dancer (Polunin especially) looked entirely at home. Letting go a little more sometimes might help but, still, there are the shoots of an excellent work here. Hopefully the depth it needs will come as the show gets more outings.
This triple bill of new work can next be seen at the Edinburgh Festival (August 12-14, visit www.eif.co.uk for details) before returning to Sadler’s Wells from September 27-October 1 (www.sadlerswells.com), for which there is still limited availability. After that, it is off to New York’s City Center (November 10-12).