Sara Veale

Zany and sensory-rich: Scottish Dance’s Amethyst/TuTuMucky at The Place reviewed

Plus: Akram Khan's new work simmers, when what I really wanted was to see it boil over

Zany and sensory-rich: Scottish Dance's Amethyst/TuTuMucky at The Place reviewed
A vortex of warbling voice work and zigzag dancing: Joao Castro, Kieran Brown and Glenda Gheller in Mele Broomes's Amethyst. Image: Brian Hartley
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The Place

Outwitting the Devil

Sadler’s Wells

The Barcelona-born choreographer Joan Clevillé has form for off-beat storytelling with a streak of sincerity. Before becoming artistic director of Scottish Dance Theatre in 2019, he led his own dance theatre company, where even his wackier creations took their caprices seriously enough to get audiences on board. Clevillé’s new commission for SDT, Amethyst by Mele Broomes of Project X Dance, is sketched in similar shades. Zany and sensory-rich, this vortex of warbling voice work and zigzag dancing tallies up to something sleeker than its scrappy parts.

The half-hour trio opens with Glenda Gheller on the mic, reciting a short speech about fragmentation — of stories, faces, perspectives, identities. ‘I feel like I am part of a fragmentation,’ she intones, repeating the line until it morphs from observation to mantra. Surrounded by sparkly rock formations, purple beams bouncing off her metallic boilersuit, she’s a galactic spectacle — and that’s before you factor in the trilling alien filter on the mic, which notches her voice up several octaves, à la ET. On paper, Gheller’s speech is shaggy, vague, but its meaning emerges in her delivery, not the sentences themselves. She dismantles and reassembles her monologue across the show, isolating phrases and emphasising their individual parts. She even adds melodies, twisting the words into something musical and emotive.

There’s less sensation in the dancing, which is likewise fragmented. Two men join Gheller for bursts of choreography that leap from breathy to fleet to choppy. We see slow-motion headspins and Matrix-style backbends, with leaps and wavy bellydances sprinkled in. The best scene involves a tarp, the dancers tussling underneath to create a craggy mountain that lumbers downstage. A poppy backbeat throbs as they crumble to the floor and reanimate as silhouettes, faces straining against the fabric. I’m not convinced by the woo-woo connection to amethysts — ‘A performance… responding to the texture and the guidance properties of this regal stone,’ read the programme notes — but I dig the punchy imagery at work.

TuTuMucky, which Far from the Norm’s Botis Seva created for SDT in 2017, brings the whole company on stage for a squirming, slithering, skittering number set to a swampy soundscape. Bodies streak from the wings and convulse on the floor; limbs shudder while plummy drips leak through the speakers. A spotlight shines on Luigi Nardone’s back as he writhes in a deep plié, muscles twitching like an egg about to hatch. Tulle skirts and blasts of classroom ballet, interrupted by jerky fidgets, marry the ‘tutu’ part of the title with the ‘mucky’.

When I saw this work in 2017, I read it as a critique of ballet and its mission to tame the body’s wilder pulses. This time, though, I’m seeing more of a synchronicity between the prim and the primal. Maybe they’re not vying for position but exploring how to coexist. The final formation — a chest--beating haka-style display — has shining elements of both. The lights dim on a gasping ensemble, reluctant to give up the fight.

Akram Khan’s Outwitting the Devil looks to ancient literature for its tension, loosely recounting the woes of Gilgamesh, the Sumerian king who sought immortality but failed to clench it. The production, receiving its UK premiere here, is part of a series marking the 20th anniversary of Khan’s company and bears all hallmarks of his distinctive style: heady atmosphere, ear-splitting soundtrack, kathak-flecked contemporary dance and mythic themes reinterpreted for today.

This particular configuration doesn’t stick the landing, though. What starts out as meditative eventually turns static, mired in sluggish sequencing and cloudy characterisations. François Testory, Luke Jessop and Pallavi Anand all appear to depict Gilgamesh at points, but no one is specified, so we can only guess how to interpret their material. The mythic conceit is also muddled, declining to thread together the apparent line (suggested in the programme) between Gilgamesh’s destruction of a sacred forest and the current climate crisis. Oblique chunks of text narrated in French lend ambiance but don’t clarify much.

That said, the dancing is supreme, fuelled by ragged breathing and bone-crunching stomps that rip into the flesh of this lofty epic. Anand, highly trained in Indian classical dance, spins in her tomato-red sari, feet flexed and palms turned upright like a whirling human hieroglyph. Jasper Narvaez is glossy and volatile, wrenching his torso into an impossible coil. A diagonal formation spanning the width of the stage becomes something of a refrain, the six dancers returning to this multi-level tableau three or four times, bodies crouched in descending height. As much as the performance simmers, though, in the end what I really wanted was to see it boil over.