Rambert in a bold film and dance experiment: Aisha and Abhaya

Linbury Theatre, Royal Opera House, London
January 23, 2020

Maggie Foyer

It was an evening of techno wizardry as the Linbury Theatre was utterly transformed by the fantasy of film. Director Kibwe Tavares’ ideas, visualised by Factory Fifteen, created a fairy tale barely hinting at the horrors of the migrants’ journey and clothed in magnificent costumes.

We follow the eponymous sisters, Aisha (Salomé Pressac) and Abhaya, (Maëva Berthelot) from their opening scene washed ashore on a desolate beach, adopted by a kindly band of travellers, wandering through a primeval forest before reuniting with grandmother. In the flashback, their grandmother is brutally murder by soldiers but, in the manner of fairy tales, she is brought back to life to embrace her grand children and exit in a rain of golden stars.

Maëva Berthelot and Edit Domoszlai in Aisha and AbhayaPhoto Foteini Christofilopoulou
Maëva Berthelot and Edit Domoszlai in Aisha and Abhaya
Photo Foteini Christofilopoulou

The costumes, by Uldus Bakhtiozina, are wildly extravagant, with shades of Imperial Russia and the Orient, creating images worthy of Vogue at its most imaginative.

The filming captures the detail in the opening closeups. Hands claw the wet sand amidst shots of jewels and chiffon scarves in the tumultuous waves all accompanied by the crash of breaking timbers. The women miraculously emerge unscathed, dresses pristine and their sculpted faces immobile in fatalistic acceptance of their lot.

Also salvaged is the sisters’ treasure: a small box containing a gold dancing figure that magically starts to dance once the lid is opened. It’s a sort of talisman and the vision of the golden dancer appears sculpted in lights at intervals throughout the show, although not often enough to connect the narrative and the dance.

Guillaume Quéau in Aisha and AbhayaPhoto Foteini Christofilopoulou
Guillaume Quéau in Aisha and Abhaya
Photo Foteini Christofilopoulou

The Rambert dancers, seven outstanding performers, are the sandwich filling. Choreographer, Sharon Eyal, has carved out for herself a singular line in dystopian movement as dancers, in tortured positions, writhe in unison. There are touches of individuality, but these are individuals chained to, and goaded on by, the driving pulse. It makes compulsive viewing whether the dancers are mincing on demi-pointe or deep in plié. The final dance scene is brilliantly matched with film as a massed, and ever-increasing, troupe of dancers, dwarfed by seven towering figures, oscillate in a Malthusian nightmare.

The programme notes suggest that the dance represents the sisters’ sense of loss. All well and good but without some connection there is little sense of a meaningful production. The film projections continue behind the dance, give some continuity. There are endless corridors of decaying walls before we are plunged into a sci-fi universe of illuminated skyscrapers moving relentlessly forward. It’s a bold experiment but one that, despite the talent involved, doesn’t fulfil its promise.