January is something of a palate-cleanser for the year, as the London International Mime Festival flies in plane-loads of companies bearing gnomic names in a kind of dance-world Desperanto that’s equally incomprehensible in every language. Like cars or tourist T-shirt slogans, titles like Plexus or Ephemeral Architectures label what’s now called ‘visual theatre’, with copious explanatory notes translated between four languages, gaining comic value at every stage. I don’t know why they don’t just write, ‘We’re playing. The sponsor paid.’ (Mark Morris is the only choreographer I know who says, ‘I make up dances and you watch ’em.’)
In LIMF you get acrobats, puppetry and circuses, but also some pretty fantastic international lighting artists, video artists and installationists. It’s the marvellously imagined set that made Plexus, Aurélien Bory’s production for the solo dancer Kaori Ito, memorable. An enormous construction that you’d imagine filling the atrium of the Wellcome Foundation, it’s a cuboid room of fine vertical wires, closely threaded in serried rows — in describing which an unfortunate image of Wayne Rooney’s hair transplant keeps coming to me. Or perhaps, think of raining stair-rods, or a thousand spiders spinning only up and down, with Ito, a short strong Japanese woman, totally closed inside this world of thinly pencilled verticals.
The concept seemed to be a conspiracy against gravity, Arno Veyrat’s spectacular lightshow making all kinds of underwater and aurora borealis effects to disembody Ito as she struggled against the threads, and then gradually made use of them. Being impeded, she was also being supported, so she could virtually swim in the wires, slip upwards, or sideways, or force the whole platform to swing, the wires twanging and rumbling, like the intestines of a gigantic piano. It was weird and grandiose, something both childish and technologically experimental, almost a movement laboratory. There was a certain amount of mystical bollocks in the programme about ‘a dialectic’ and ‘the hub of our frailties’ but obviously they wouldn’t get the funding without that. 4x4 Ephemeral Architectures, Gandini Juggling’s marriage of juggling and ballet dancing, is another experiment in movement. Here are two physical disciplines that should conflict. Group juggling requires almost mindless mechanical reliability in the team — as one of the jugglers announces, a ‘system’ is a way of deciphering, deconstructing, reasoning. There’s no room in juggling for spontaneity, because the dumb-bell is as dumb as its name and just won’t stay in the air for a sudden extra microsecond. But while dancers also need to possess that sort of mechanical reliability in their physical skills, their art is in seizing those microseconds and cheeking the inevitability of physical laws. So the challenge here is to find a place for art’s individualising strategies of metaphor and illusion within the scientific juggling construction.
The result is droll and pleasing, a nice visual jazz between voluntary human bodies and law-abiding inanimate objects with a subversive syncopation. The metronomic soft plop of rings and balls in jugglers’ hands plays against the freedom of the ballet dancers to make mischief, or not, disrupt that hypnotic tick-tock and send time itself crashing to the ground. A free will which jugglers can’t permit in their world. So it is an entertaining experience of metaphysics too. All is plushly wrapped with Guy Hoare’s glowing lighting and the live music-making by Camerata Alma Viva’s string-players. A UK tour is apparently in the offing — I commend it.
The opposite of this sort of make-of-it-what-you-will theatre is narrative dance, where the danger is soap-boxing. I hate to be negative about the heroic BalletBoyz. Their struggles to keep upright their mission to nurture young male dancers are as tough as Ito’s inside all those wires. But Young Men, their ambitious new war-themed creation, is a backward step. It’s yet another first world war show, of which we had more than a few in ballet last year, but the makers have taken the crass, commercially accessible route. Replicating soldier boys, war training, traumatic shock, dysfunction, with a company of athletic young male dancers, all have too obvious representational attractiveness to young choreographer Iván Pérez, and ‘cult’ composer Keaton Henson indulges us with saccharine plangency fortissimo. Very long, very superficial, very sorry, boyz.
I’m not much bigger a fan of John Cranko’s celebrated three-hankie ballet Onegin either, though there are some clearly extremely well crafted highlights in this blowsy creation exhumed by the Royal Ballet for the spring. The ‘letter scene’, in which Tatiana fantasises of being swept off her feet by the starchy Onegin, like the dreaming girl in Fokine’s Le Spectre de la rose, has an acrobatically soaring quality that with the right performers can be an ecstatic experience (but was far from it with Itziar Mendizabal and Nehemiah Kish). Pushkin’s great psychologically acute story is as mouldable for ballet as opera, and the Tchaikovsky mish-mash as sweet as a box of chocolates, so it’s a pity Cranko hammered it all down in a choreographic style that’s nearer mime theatre than so-called mime theatre nowadays. But like a second-rate Giordano opera, all it takes is four fantastic performers able to aerate the pudding. Maybe they’re out there in the casts to come.