Ballet national de Marseille by (LA) HORDE

Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Centre, London
March 1, 2024

Roommates is a multi-bill curated by (LA) HORDE, directors of Ballet national de Marseille since 2019. Spanning six pieces, an enthusiasm for versatility cannot be refuted. At the Southbank Centre, audience reaction to this pick and mix programme said as much about the UK’s dance scene as the performance itself.

Grime Ballet – Dance Because You Can’t Talk to Animals by Cecilia Bangolea and François Chaignaudis is befuddling and accurate to its name. Four dancers, three of which are male, don pointe shoes along with their catsuits of monochrome stripes and purple velvet. Movement is a medley of placed geometric lines and dancehall hips to krump beats. Twerking in pointe shoes is no easy feat, but they hobble insect-like on bent knees and, at times, treacherously wobbly ankles. Why pointe shoes? The answer feels little more than ‘why not?’ Their sass and focus are almost redeeming until a ribbon breaks loose. An underwhelming warm-up.

Ballet national de Marseille in Grime Ballet
Photo Thierry Hauswald

Weather is Sweet by (LA) HORDE charges that same carefree attitude with sexuality. A fevered duet opens the piece, and a voice over, smooth as AI, mutters over movement the audience are palpably nervous to be privy to. Exhibitionist and indulgent, our presence feels voyeuristic. Another four dancers enter, adopting those hip-centric actions that become less impassioned and more routine, hinting at objectification. Once adjusted, we appreciate the synchronised floorwork, and the irresistibly amusing sight of dancers batted back and forth and side to side like tennis balls.

Sexuality morphs into a physical metaphor for rapid, vapid and insatiable consumption. Weather is Sweet comes from Age of Content, a full-length piece drawing on the perpetual streams of information that connect and inhibit us, and also breed narcissism. Even before knowing this, the tone of this piece teeters between sinister and liberating. Closing to operatic chants, I wonder if we are not used to seeing dancers utterly un-self-conscious in self-love and desire, and whether it is time we should be.

The tale of Oiwa, who seeks revenge from beyond the grave on the woman who stole her husband, him and others, is one of Japan’s most famous ghost stories, and the muse for Peeping Tom’s creation, Oiwa. Thick mist swallows the first few rows of the audience. Eventually, two nude figures emerge. What follows could be a pas de deux, but Sarah Abicht’s volition is inconsistent. She is promenaded in contortioned poses, dragged and draped over Antoine Vander Linden’s shoulders. The mist concealing their lower bodies shrouds their transitions with vague, indeed ghostly mystique. But things become messy. Limbs entangled in primal, sculpture-like shapes grow increasingly awkward, a wrestle of will within their relationship.

We are left with a mighty, mesmerising spinning lift sequence by ghostly doubles of the original pair. The dancers are irretrievable from this ethereal, ambiguous landscape, as are we; Oiwa is a haunting one could dazedly surrender to for a little while longer.

Ballet national de Marseille in Oiwa
Photo Thierry Hauswald

In Lucinda Child’s postmodern Concerto, the cast are unrecognisable. Pinned into position by precise, Cunningham-esque structures and lines, the work turns movement into maths; a simplicity that demands upmost accuracy. The neat and whippy leaps and spins remain uncompromised by complex linear arrangements, impatient transitions and the roaring invasion of Henryk Górecki’s harpsichord concerto. Despite individual difference in technique, Concerto is rehearsed impeccably. In a refreshingly straightforward piece, non-imposing in message, the dancers do not flinch from poise and serenity.

Les Indomptés, a much celebrated and widely performed duet sees Jonathan Myhre Jorgensen and Titouan Crozier bursting into unison with sharp, muscular gestures. Their entire bodies activate to arrive in positions with force and feeling, like a poem where no word is wasted. To the lonely, falsetto vocals of Wim Mertens, a sense of flight emerges, wings expanding and breaking, in an urging freedom reminiscent of Christopher Bruce’s Swansong.

There is a brutal intensity to Jorgensen and Crozier’s execution, but a tenderness to their relationship. The pair are not tight throughout, sometimes overshooting and losing balance. However, they commit; to a contrast between the tight and the sweeping, to scurrying legs of childlike fixation, and to knowing the space one another holds. For the eight minutes of Les Indomptés’ sweet agony, it is like we are not there at all.

Ballet national de Marseille in Room With A View
Photo Pete Woodhead

For the finale, we are treated to another shapeshift, an excerpt of Room With A View, created by LA (HORDE) with French electronic musician, RONE. The piece unfolds as a riot and a rave. Dancers are swung and tossed like jump ropes in a playground style opening scene. Forming a pack, they then use their chests and fists to build a percussive, overlapping sequence of gestures. In mismatched and holey yet flattering streetwear, the entire cast rally to addictive rhythms. Packs might have become a trope but this one is a satisfying culmination of a diverse cast. A little cringey, but a lot of fun.

Ballet national de Marseille are rooted in rebellion. They are identifiable by the personal risks taken by the dancers, and by (LA) HORDE’s direction on a curational level. Landing in the UK, with its admittedly tame definition of radical, the reception of Roomates was raucous. Whether you applaud their non-segregated, raunchy, protesting work or not, I dare you to try and look away.