Reflections and connections with today’s world in Dancing Nation

Dancing Nation part three
BBC iPlayer and Sadler’s Wells website
January 27, 2021

Review of Dancing Nation part one
Review of Dancing Nation part two

David Mead

Whereas Akram Khan’s new duet for himself and Natalia Osipova, the highlight of programme two of Dancing Nation, references the coronavirus pandemic, Shobana Jeyasingh’s prescient 2018 work Contagion, actually about the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918-19 that it estimated killed around 50 million people worldwide, draws parallels head on.

In the voice-over, we hear the vivid account by Indian poet, novelist, essayist Nirala, then aged just 22, of how the flu swept through his family, claiming the life of his wife (the high mortality in healthy young people was a unique feature of that pandemic).

Shobana Jeyasingh's Contagionstill from film, courtesy Sadler's Wells
Shobana Jeyasingh’s Contagion
still from film, courtesy Sadler’s Wells

In the extended extract, the eight dancers embody his feelings and sense of loss as he witnesses her and others’ cremation and more relatives succumbing to the virus. Later, they shift and mutate as they embody the battle against the unseen, then become nurses and carers as they cradle the ill, giving what little relief they can. While I can appreciate Contagion may be a little too close to home at the moment for some, it remains an incredibly affecting piece of dance.

Equally relevant to today is Shades of Blue by brothers Anthony and Kel Matsena, who together make up Matsena Productions. A work about the power of protest and longing for freedom and peace, it’s a response to the double impact of Covid-19 and the Black Lives Matter movement.

Shades of Blue by Matsena ProductionsScreenshot from film
Shades of Blue by Matsena Productions
Screenshot from film

When the stage lights descend, you can almost feel the weight as they bear down on the dancers. With each in their own patch of light, they are isolated, restricted. The dance suggests, frustration, anger and rage. In a very obvious reference to events, one of the women, dressed in a police-style stab-jacket, stands on the back of one of the men. Prone on the floor, he reaches out towards a light. But is anyone listening?

Shades of Blue is a dance of protest. Even in this excerpt, meaning and message are very clear. And yet, unlike some works on the subject, the brothers never leave you feeling you yourself are being attacked or beaten over the head in an attempt to make you understand. It is political, but it is also so incredibly eloquent, the points so well made, that you want to watch; you want to listen.

And if the dance isn’t persuasive enough, listen to Kel Matsena’s powerful, stirring speech at the end, made to an empty Sadler’s Wells auditorium. “Are you numb yet?” he asks. Demanding action not words, he adds, “No amount of tears can put out the fires in my head.” As he talks, the rows of vacant seats make the words hit home even more powerfully. Is anyone listening?

Minju Kang with Ayami Miyata and Kyungka Kwak in States of MindPhoto Emma Kauldhar
Minju Kang with Ayami Miyata and Kyungka Kwak in States of Mind
Photo Emma Kauldhar

Inspired by a collection of thoughts and feelings from lockdown, Kenneth Tindall’s States of Mind for Northern Ballet premiered at the Leeds Playhouse in one of the few autumn live shows that actually went ahead. Perfectly accompanied by music from Jacob Ter Veldhuis and J.S. Bach, it is a more abstract response to recent experiences, although if it wasn’t for the voiceover or programme note, I’m not entirely sure I would have made the connection. Not that it matters, because it’s also yet another delicious dance from one of the best British ballet choreographers around right now.

A section led by Minju Kang sees women isolated in squares of light, the expressive choreography suggesting loneliness. At the ballet’s heart, however, is a sublimely beautiful and all-to-brief pas de deux for Abigail Prudames and Joseph Taylor. It flows marvellously, each lift, each move, transitioning so easily and so wonderfully smoothly into the next. There are moments when time seems to slow, Prudames finding almost impossible moments of suspension as she falls into her partner’s arms. Other couples continue the feeling.

In the voiceover, we hear “Consider love. All around us, heart-warming stories of those brought together.” Paradoxically, it made me think of the opposite and reflect on being apart, missing people and that warmth that comes with touch, and losing people. From a very personal perspective, I really did find it terribly emotional.

Rambert in Rouge by Marion MotinPhoto Johan Persson
Rambert in Rouge by Marion Motin
Photo Johan Persson

Rounding Dancing Nation off is an excerpt from Rouge by Marion Motin for Rambert. Probably a new name to many British dance-goers, the hip-hop influenced French choreographer is best known for her commercial work, having danced on tour with Madonna and on music videos for Robbie Williams, and choreographed for Christine and the Queens’ Chaleur Humaine tour, and Dua Lipa’s IDGAF music video, which was nominated for best choreography at the 2018 MTV Video Music Awards.

The excerpt here certainly has that pop video feel. There’s a lot of bobbing to the beat of Mika Luna’s music. The dancers are superb, their bodies shifting and pounding away as if the cast are in a daze in some underground club, often in unison and often repetitively. However, and maybe it just doesn’t work as an extract, but it doesn’t go anywhere and feels very thin.

Dancing Nation is on BBC iPlayer (for UK viewers) and (international viewers) until February 26, 2021.