Ghost Dances as powerful as ever: Rambert at Sadler’s Wells

Sadler’s Wells, London
May 16, 2017

Charlotte Kasner

Aletta Collins’ The days run away like wild horses opens Rambert’s spring offering at the Wells in fine style. Initially set in a lilac wallpapered room, the distorted proportions make the dancers seem ridiculously tall and the nursery colours give it an odd hallucinatory quality. Each dancer is stuck in a loop of repeated actions: tossing a ball through a window, retrieving it, tossing it out again, carrying a Christmas tree, jogging on the spot and stretching.

The actions build and get more bizarre, each dancer in their mental bubble, including the couple having sex. Gradually, like a colony of ants where each ant has a specific task that contributes to the whole, they collaborate to turn on a light. The colony has been infiltrated though. Amongst the brightly clad dancers in ‘day’ clothes, marron clad men and women are interspersed, their routine co-ordinated.

When the room flies away, taking the levity with it, and we are left with a stage full of maroon-clad dancers dancing to Arturo Márquez’s Cuban-inspired Danzones, the work becomes contemplative, the chaos of life stripped down to essentials of relationships.

Lucy Balfour and Liam Francis in The days run away like wild horsesPhoto Ellie Kurtz
Lucy Balfour and Liam Francis in The days run away like wild horses
Photo Ellie Kurtz

Didy Veldman’s The 3 Dancers is inspired by Picasso’s vibrant Cubist painting of 1925 that depicts a classic, vicious love-triangle that refers to the suicide of one of the protagonists. One dancer is wearing a death mask modelled on a mask from the Torres Strait that Picasso owned. He is depicted in sections with a hole through his middle. Another flings her arms in the air in agony or ecstasy but she is not free as her hands are irrevocably attached to the other two. The third person sulks in the shadows, his face mirrored and duplicated by his own shadow on the wall behind him.

Not that any of this would be discernible from Veldman’s depiction. Kimie Nakano’s design strips it of all colour and presents it in monochrome. A couple of steely barbs fly in slowly which are aesthetically pleasing but struggle to connect with the actions on stage or bring to mind the painting. Veldman’s choreography strips the subject of all passions and presents a rather rambling work with six dancers, three in black, three in white, so they appear to be shadows of themselves or perhaps one trio represents the darker side of human nature. In the end, it’s just rather frenetic and confusing with Elena Kats-Chernin’s score probably the most interesting contribution.

Daniel Davidson, Liam Francis and Juan Gil in Ghost DancesPhoto Jane Hobson
Daniel Davidson, Liam Francis and Juan Gil in Ghost Dances
Photo Jane Hobson

Without doubt though, the evening belongs Christopher Bruce’s masterpiece Ghost Dances. So much contemporary dance deals with inner, personal conflict and relationships but Bruce paints a global picture. As relevant now as when he made it in 1981, it belongs to a tryptic of equally great human rights-orientated works that includes Swansong and Silence is the End of Our Song, centred on South America but applicable in many other places.

The haunting breathiness of pan pipes sounds like respiration proceeding a death-rattle. Claves and guiros echo the hollow rasp of dry, skeletal bones. The people dance, love and live. They disappear, die and mourn. There is a lot of use of second position and sudden stops as the mood changes direction. Whirling, stamping dancing pulsating with rhythm melts into nothingness as men disappear only to return as wraiths wrapped in wisps of weeds. The dead still dance. Hope and fight have not been killed.

Venezuela post-Chavez faces a real threat of famine and political repression, Latin-American cities dominate the lists of the most likely places to be murdered or kidnapped. In Ecuador, Paraguay, Argentina, Brazil, Colombia and Chile people protest against entrenched, repressive governments.

Works like Ghost Dances are needed now more than ever to remind us that dance has a powerful place in human culture to record atrocities, celebrate life and take a stand against oppression.