‘Aerial’ ballets were all the rage in late-Victorian London. It mattered little that they were more circus acts than actual ballets; their female stars, swinging from either a trapeze or sturdy ropes, were worshipped on a par with the greatest ballerinas — as in Angela Carter’s novel Nights at the Circus. I often wonder what those people would think of their postmodern successors, as performing with ropes seems to be a growing trend within contemporary dance-making.
Take Ilona’s Jäntti’s Handspun, which opened the Exposure: Dance programme at the Linbury Studio Theatre last week. Jäntti combines unique rope-climbing and choreographic skills in a work that makes viewers forget technical bravura and focus, instead, on a well-designed game of dramatic tensions. Her interaction with the ropes turns those implements into co-protagonists, with whom she engages in a silent, though theatrically expressive dialogue. And, as in every conversation with the most trusted of friends, tones vary considerably, shifting from the affectionate to the confrontational, from the teasing to the coquettish. At the back of the stage cellist Louise McMonagle adds to this surreal dialogue by playing Luke Styles’s effective score, a sort of modern take on the musique parlante, or ‘speaking music’ that ballet composers went in for in the 19th century.
A look into past theatre practices was also at the core of 2 Men and a Michael, which draws upon the great British tradition of deadpan humour. The duet, created by Gary Clarke, is performed by the New Art Club — Tom Roden and Pete Shenton — and comes across as Morecambe and Wise-meet-Pina Bausch. Vintage slapstick mingles more or less comfortably with bouts of dark, even unsettling humour. Alas, the combination is not as explosive as it sounds, and the whole thing drags on a bit, thus deflating the comic tension created in the first few minutes.
Unfortunately, things spiralled downwards as soon as the lights dimmed on a humorous but not so enthralling duet. Shattered, created by Company Chameleon and danced by Kevin Edward Turner, was presented as one of the ‘guest’ performances included in each of the three evenings. Which made me question what this rather traditional, not to say predictable dance piece had that made it earn the centrepiece position. As it stood, it was a compendium of all the choreographic clichés and trite ideas that have informed modern and postmodern dance since the mid-1960s.
Which, in a sense, is what also characterised the other two items in the programme, the choreographically diligent but not terribly provocative Mythos/Logos by Alexander Whitley, formerly of Birmingham Royal Ballet, and Jorge Crecis’s 36. It was a pity, for the latter included some splendid dance-making amid a rather tedious and choreographically dated use of chance composition.
All in all, the evening came across as anything but ‘new and thought-provoking’, to quote from the programme note. The impression one had instead was of fairly tame choreography, and I cannot help wondering whether such lack of punch is to be fully ascribed to the dance-makers or has also to do with the aesthetics and politics of the ROH2 environment. After all, it is still part of the Royal Opera House establishment, and is thus highly unlikely ever to host performances such as those proposed by some of the truly trailblazing troublemakers of today’s dance and theatre dance. I am ready to give them the benefit of the doubt, though, and wait for the next ROH2 ‘new dance’ programme at the end of March.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated March 3, 2012