Let me tell you a story. On a sweltering summer evening, a cynical dancer reviewer and a first-time ballet-goer dips their toes into the Dance Reflections Festival. Financed by Van Cleef&Arpels (lovely French bling) and hosted by Sadlers Wells, Royal Opera House, and the Tate modern. It was, as you would imagine a weird and wonderful experience….for the first 45 minutes that is.
Dance Reflections settles itself into Sadler’s Wells for the first time. Bringing the best of French experimental dance and art to the much-loved venue. It makes perfect sense here, and long may it return. Sadly, I was only able to catch this one show but it certainly didn’t hold back.
The audience is split in two (a traverse stage for you theatre nerds), which I didn’t even realise was possible in the normally proscenium-arched Wells. We sit and stare at our fellow theatre-goers over a slick black expanse of plastic, with little hazard lights unlit in a scattered pattern. Looks like I will refrain from picking my nose for this performance then…well if I must.
What follows is odd, and I think I mean that in the very best way. Although I’m not entirely sure. The premise is erudite. Six dancers (including the choreographer himself, Boris Charmatz) are dressed like sugar-crazed toddler let loose in Kim Kardashian’s Skims warehouse. Add a glittering pair of red Dorothy slippers and a long flowing shirt to break up the shapewear monotony. Pants over leotards ? say no more cries Jean-Paul Lespagnard the costume designer. The concept springboards off the idea of mental counting that all movement is based on, and runs…and runs…and runs with it. The days of waltzing: 1,2,3,4 and repeat, are left completely in the dust.
Moving in unison while reciting numbers they do create some engaging shapes. Like all good “improvised” theatre Charmatz’s choreography relies on some delicate repeated mini-sequences. When one of the dancers fall down “dead”, the rest gather and lift her limp body to the other end of the space. An explosive group jeté sequence allows them to show off their athletic prowess amidst the more abstract movement. The spinning lights cast beams like arrows, underlining the sporadic and explorative nature of the piece. Imagine a clump of twitching bodyparts all convulsing on an airport runway. Visually unforgettable! Yves Godin should be very smug over this flash of lighting genius. Experts of rather shaky singing, deeply personal and utterly banal statements are thrown out into the space. A personal favourite is “I just don’t see why we can’t spend Christmas just the two of us”. This deadpan statement of domestic drama is spoken over a section of suggestive gyrating, hilarious and unexpected.
Unexpected is this piece’s best attribute, it keeps us guessing. Mistress comedy, such a rare commodity in the dance world is also racing around the theatre. Just the sheer randomness coupled with the flock-like ability for group movement keep us engaged…
….until it doesn’t. About 45 minutes in the concept loses its shine and despite some clashing bagpipe music quickly embedded, what follows is far too similar. Although the ever-present counting never falters, we end up with the dancers listing famous people’s births. Lists? Really? The clear physical strain of the constant moving and speaking takes its toll. They look like there are about to drop, the nude nylon plastered to their trembling bodies with a layer of sweat.
A hefty cut should be entertained by Charmatz, not only for the dancer’s health but also for the audience engagement. The themes of time, maths, and infinity become over-explored and worn out, and the astonishing beginning is mushed into a litany that feels a little like cultural torture. The saying short and sweet has never felt more fitting, as I think I will be counting in my dreams for weeks to come.