The January dance stage can be a site of naked contrition. Like a tippler grasping at green juice after a December of prosecco pukes (#NewYearNewMe), companies slap Swan Lakes and Giselles on the roster, eager to atone for the indulgences of Nutcracker season. It’s back to business at your opera houses and concert halls. Button up and batten down.
Enter Sadler’s Wells Sampled, a hair-down do in a sea of chignons. The show is a taster of the assorted fare that passes through the London venue, from ballroom to breakdance. Tickets are cheap, there’s Proms-style standing, and no one will shoot you STFU daggers if you whoop too loud. It’s all very relaxed.
Possibly too relaxed this year, at least in terms of programming. A highlight of Sampled is normally its balance of established and emerging genres. The 2020 lineup mostly courts the latter, though, leading to some puzzling gaps. There’s no ballet, for one — a curious oversight, given the prevalence of English National Ballet on the Sadler’s stage, among others. Also thin on the ground: resonant storytelling. New forms are vital to the landscape, no question, but successful dance embraces human stories; it doesn’t sidestep them in favour of novelty.
Living Archive, from contemporary choreographer Wayne McGregor, is the worst offender on this front. A loud-and-proud technophile, McGregor created this 2019 piece by plugging his repertoire into a bespoke Google platform and repackaging its algorithms. Some of the moves are beautiful — long extensions, sinuous cascading hips — but their random assembly left me cold. Géométrie Variable’s stab at prismatic port de bras is similarly flat, an exercise with no emotional spark.
Luckily we have hip-hop outfit Far From The Norm swooping in with something far more deeply felt. In the space of 17 minutes, the excerpt on show — from Botis Seva’s award-winning BLKDOG — sketches a vivid portrait of failure and persistence. There’s a gripping violence to the choreography, the dancers making expert use of weight as they convulse, collapse, repeat. Ezequiel Lopez and Camila Alegre likewise impress in a virtuoso tango that swerves from frisky to furious. The acrobatics of circus troupe Machine de Cirque are less polished but surprisingly endearing, exposing the vulnerable side of an art that prizes superhuman feats.
Rounding out the show are turns from (LA)HORDE, who fly the flag for ‘jumpstyle’, a huffing Belgian club dance; and Max Revell and Shree Savani, winners of the 2019 BBC Young Dancer competition. Savani scribes a graceful calligraphy of poses in her classical Indian solo, while Revell is tasked with a lyrical routine involving fussy elastic bands. His popping skills shine through, though I’m not convinced this hip-hop-meets-mime style is the best outlet for his talent.
Over at the Linbury Theatre, it’s another mixed affair with Aisha and Abhaya, a Rambert/Royal Ballet collaboration with filmmaker Kibwe Tavares and choreographer Sharon Eyal at the helm. There are a lot of competing talents here, and they don’t really gel.
The premise is oblique: two lavishly coiffed sisters wash up on a beach, where they discover a pack of dancing wilderpeople and join the party. This much is shown on screen before we switch to live-action hip-thrusting. A jerky back-and-forth between film and dance ensues. Our refugees — émigrés of ‘an imaginary war-torn country’ —disappear whenever the film does. The story never gets any clearer.
I will say this: Uldus Bakhtiozina’s costuming makes Rambert’s young dancers look cool as hell, like a couture ad come to life. But the production is woolly, blinded by its own ridiculous aesthetic. How convenient that the sisters have landed on a coast ripped straight from a Lonely Planet cover! How lovely that their beaded headdresses and smokey eyeliner have survived an unceremonious trip in the ocean! Tavares purports to ‘draw people in with the fantastical, while tethering it to the real, human things that people go through’, but the film seems uninterested in exploring its subjects as anything more than ornaments. A cynical reading would suggest it’s an attempt to leverage the migrant crisis for superficial intrigue.
In any case, it’s flimsy scaffolding for the dance it brackets, a cavalcade of the body-pumping Eyal thrives on: contorted shoulders, brutal isometrics, convulsions with pronounced pelvic action. When they’re not pacing on demi-pointe, the seven-strong group bounces in plié, heads cocked, teeth clenched — a display my neighbour in the audience wryly dubbed ‘dance masturbation’. The clubby score by Ori Lichtik and Gaika definitely lends a tantric quality.
Obscure animations flash in the background: Blade Runner-style cityscapes, crowds of 3D dancers. The energy wanes as the throbbing grinds on, though Salomé Pressac is a vigorous force throughout, reprising the ugly-pretty-tude she served in 2018’s Killer Pig, another Lycra-heavy Eyal commission. Strutting with intense self-possession, her vibe is half RuPaul catwalk, half Venus rising from the sea.