Past and present come together: Yorke Dance Project

Linbury Theatre, The Royal Opera House, London
November 14, 2021

Past Present was the most appropriate of titles, for its content as well as the underlying ethos of Yorke Dance project, well know for its revival of historic works. The programme brought together an iconic solo by Martha Graham, Kenneth MacMillan’s 1988 experimental, impressionist chamber ballet Sea of Troubles, and new works by Robert Cohan (his final work before passing away last January aged 95) and artistic director Yolande Yorke-Edgell. Even in those new pieces, the past was never far away.

Apart from marking the loss of Cohan, the often and unsurprisingly contemplative programme was also dedicated to Hazel Yorke-Edgell, the artistic director’s mother.

Graham’s 1930 five-minute solo Lamentation sees a dancer (Yorke-Edgell) sat on a bench, shrouded in stretchy purple jersey. It’s a dance of stark angularity. As she writhes and twists, the movement clearly comes from inside. Set to music by Zoltán Kodály, it epitomises grief, albeit in a very expressionistic manner. Perhaps that’s why I’ve never found it particularly affecting, even when done as well as here.

Created for the short-lived Dance Advance, a group of former members of The Royal Ballet, MacMillan’s Sea of Troubles delves into the tormented world of Hamlet and his need to avenge the death of his father. It is not a literal telling of the play although it does help if you have some knowledge of it. If you don’t, MacMillan’s picture of a world in which Hamlet is consumed by disturbing nightmares and hallucinations is still very clear.

Yorke Dance Project in Kenneth MacMillan’s Sea of Troubles in 2016
Photo Pari Naderi

The ballet’s pared back staging reflects the resources available to Dance Advance. It’s presented through a succession of short, episodic scenes separated by brief blackouts. The only set (designs by Deborah MacMillan) is a golden curtain to one side.

Danced barefoot, the choreography is highly expressive but a world away from classical ballet vocabulary, relying much on that of modern dance. Like the worst nightmares, things keep recurring. Polonius is killed several times. Ghosts whisper and buffet. The six dancers who play Hamlet, Ophelia, Polonius Gertrude, Claudius, the ghost of Hamlet’s father, keep switching roles, the changes marked by a paper crown or cloak being passed from one to another. It is pretty confusing but it’s also incredibly fascinating.

What proved Cohan’s final work, Afternoon Conversations with Dancers, was created almost entirely over Zoom during the 2020 lockdown. Set to music by Nils Frahm and Ólafur Arnolds, each performance includes five of eight intimate conversations between dancer and choreographer, between which the whole cast cross the stage as if looking for someone or something.

Most are understandably introspective. There appears to be a hidden narrative in Abigail Attard Montalto’s dance that combines deep lunges with gambolling steps. She frequently appears to hold something to her ear. Having taken clothes off, Jon Goddard turns like a Greek god on dias under a red light. Fists clenched against his sides, he trembles with such force you think he might just shatter. In complete contrast, Pierre Tappon bursts onto the stage in a vibrant outpouring of the human spirit. Yolande Yorke-Edgell sinks into deep pliés between quick skippity steps in a Graham-inspired dance. Finally, Oxana Panchenko’s is more classical ballet infused.

Sir Robert Cohan in rehearsal with Yorke Dance Project in 2015
Photo David McCormick

The closing So It Is, to music by Nathaniel Dett and Nicola Porpora, is Yorke-Edgell’s homage to her friend and mentor Cohan, and in which she is joined by seven dancers. Bookended by reflective duets between her and Jon Goddard (who one can’t help but feel is effectively playing Cohan) that emphasise longing, it’s at its best in the lighter, hopeful, forward-looking lyrical sections, when the music turns to Propora’s Baroque opera Meride e Selinute. The flowing, intensely musical choreography is reminiscent of Richard Alston (another Cohan student), and full of gorgeous twists, tilts and curves, The cast were superb (as indeed they were all afternoon), with fine technique and clarity wherever you looked. So It Is deserves to remain in the repertory for a long time.