Tuesday 18 November 2008

Ballet Rambert on Tour: The Torturers Impress But the Victim Underperforms

'What cannot be said can be sung, and what cannot be sung can be danced.'
Martha Graham, American choreographer
Ballet Rambert was founded on the basis of a dynamic triangle: its body of dancers would create choreographers who would then be introduced to the more outstanding composers and designers of their time. This triumvirate was at the heart of their theatrical outlook and it still dazzles today.

Alas, that was not the case this time around.

Last Saturday 15th November I took my seat at the Sadler's Wells Theatre in Islington, north London, expecting to be swept away by the same bravura performance which has characterised my previous exposures to Ballet Rambert.

The programme consisted of two pieces, 'Swansong', Christopher Bruce's timeless 1987 classic and a new choregraphy, 'Eternal Light', a post-modernistic Requiem for the 21st century. Before each piece, though, Mark Baldwin, Rambert's current artistic director, took it upon himself to give us a little insight into the company's modus operandi. This was very welcomed as he had a group of contemporary dancer and classical ballet performers demonstrate to the attending public (including many children and youngsters) the main differences between both disciplines. It was only when his light-hearted and humourous approach permeated the seriousness of the first piece that I foresaw the disaster looming ahead.

'Swansong' is a three-men choreography that deals with torture, although it could also be taken as an allegory for any type of abuse or bullying. The first time I saw this piece was on video, my wife had an old copy of one of the first performances ever and I remember getting butterflies in my stomach as the choreography built towards its tragic finale.

On Saturday the torturers danced magnificently. Their sadistic homo-eroticism towards the hapless victim was believable and it was further punctuated by the repetition of tap dance steps which they then got the prisoner to replicate against his will. Their bent hands, supple limbs, stuck out backsides and sinuous figures seemed to mock the status quo, possibly because it was the status quo that had conferred upon them the right to behave (or misbehave) in such a sadistic way. The interaction between torturers and prisoner brought to mind pictures of 'A Clockwork Orange', the movie I have never been able to watch in its entirety in one sitting. Other images and thoughts that flashed through my mind were linked to Abu Ghraib, the Nazis, Pinochet's junta and Cuba's very own Villa Marista, a jail for mainly political prisoners in Havana, because it's not only in the US-controlled area of Guantanamo where innocents are castigated unjustly. Excesses do happen on the other side of the fence. The dancer performing the victim was not bad but he was not outstanding either. His solos were, in my opinion, devoid of vim and vigour and that ultimately affected the piece as a whole. It is not good to compare performers but it was only a year ago that I saw the same piece with a different dancer in the victim's role and I could not hold back the tears during the finale.

After a short break it was the turn for 'Eternal Light'.This was a piece based on, according to Mark Baldwin, the choreographer, Remembrance Day and hope. And you could hardly fault him for trying to convey the symbolism of these two powerful ideas. It started ever so promising. Eryck Brahmania soloed in front of the corps de ballet, who remained on the floor. His movements were slow and lethargic. After a few minutes he joined the rest of the dance choir. Suddenly a curtains crawled up whilst letting a tenuous green light in. The whole body of dancers moved at the same time in what seemed to be some sort of Oriental dance or martial art. So far, so promising. But then it all went downhill.

Set to a score that incorporated a choir singing in English and Latin and two soloists (one male, one female), 'Eternal Light' did not appear on the bill with the tag 'Underachiever' attached to it. And in my opinion that was the main cause for its ultimate undoing. Too much (self) indulgence. With its quasi-religious Christian imagery and marvellous music, the piece raised my expectations too high and failed to deliver them. There were a few moments of consolation, but too scant to mention: a duet here, a solo there, but overall, Eternal Light was a razzmatazz of disparate pieces that did not connect very well.

Thus, on analysing this last piece I can only think of paraphrasing Martha Graham's words: 'What cannot be said can be sung, and what cannot be sung can be danced, although sometimes it's better if the latter is avoided.'

Note: The soundtrack of the clip below is one of the ten movements of the aforementioned choreography 'Eternal Light'.

Copyright 2008


  1. I see what you mean. Maybe less would have been more in the case of Eternal Light. Nice review, Mr. Cuban!

  2. Good explain. I understand your point of view !
    Nice photo !

  3. Thanks, willow and web. That's exactly my point. I don't mind glitz, glamour and shiny colours as long as the piece does not sufffer. I thought it did on this occasion.

    Greetings from London.

  4. Hola, ramon, no, no son mias, son de Google :-)

    Yes, diva, luckily the fact that I was in good company did not spoil the day.

    Greetings from London.

  5. Me hubiera gustado estar allí, disfruto mucho el ballet, aunque los temas me recuerden momentos tristes...
    Un abrazo, Cuban!

  6. Gracias, agu, me encanta Balle Rambert aunque en esta ocasion se hayan quedado un tantito cortos.

    Saludos desde Londres.

  7. The title of your post was a bit disconcerting to read. I'm so glad I read on to understand your meaning! This is a very nice review. When I go to events like this, I always root for the artists; that's why it's so sad to be disappointed.

  8. Thanks, dutchbaby, golden rule of marketing: confuse the reader to reel them in :-D!

    I, too, root for the artist because I am one. I teach and perform Afro-Cuban dance and have been going to dance shows since I was sixteen or seventeen. On this occasion, though, the magical element was lost in the explanation of the choreographies. I think that as willow asserted, sometimes less is more. Thanks for your visit and your comment :-)

    Greetings from London.

  9. I thought about Clockwork Orange too seeing that image. It must have been very moving and disturbing to see in person. The swan image made me think of the movie Billy Eliot. The arts are such an interesting way to process our current and often disturbing history.

  10. i like that quote, and your altered version makes me laugh.

    tonight i'll be attending a dance festival at the local university here. i was initially going because i enjoy dance and enjoy seeing others dance. oh and also because i get in free! but after reading this, i'm gonna have to see what sort of analytical conclusions i can come up with once it's over.

  11. Thanks Sarah and fly for your kind comments.

    Greetings from London.

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