Rambert’s autumn programme opens with Merce Cunningham’s RainForest. This piece, from 1968, takes modern contemporary dance right back to its roots, and is worlds away from the showiness of some recent pieces. Cunningham transports us to a timeless, location-less ‘rainforest’; the six dancers become jungle creatures, unknown life forms. The minimalism of the choreography is paired with a plain stage, filled with silver helium balloons in a design by Andy Warhol. There’s no abundance of plot here, but Cunningham makes it mesmerising. It’s short, potent and to the point; choreographers of today should perhaps take note.
The Cunningham piece is followed by Mark Baldwin’s new work, Seven for a secret, a sweet tribute to the innocence of childhood, which Rambert artistic director Baldwin has created in collaboration with the company’s scientist in residence, Professor Nicola S Clayton. While the programme notes tell us that the creative team were interested in three particular elements of child psychology – inside/outside, imitation/innovation and play – only the last, the concept of play, is apparent in the finished piece. To cite research as stimulus feels a little over-complicated, as surely most people are familiar with what play entails.
Baldwin has chosen to depict his dancers as children, and has dressed them in a variety of child-like clothing. While some dancers are petite enough to just about pull this off, others are left looking awkward. The use of fast-rotating wrists during the jumps make it look like the dancers are skipping, while open chests and big jetés are suggestive of young, gangly limbs. However, at other times, Baldwin’s choreography veers rather too close to mime, with the dancers engaged in pillow fights and teddy bear rolls. Still, when the choreography is less reliant on these exaggerated displays of childlike behaviour, the piece has a degree of charm. The soaring strings accompanying the soft adage and the loving glances of blossoming young love work are well utilised. Of the performers, Dane Hurst steals the show, especially in his solo – his crisp entrechats look as weightless as a little boy’s.
From one extreme to the next; Seven for a secret is followed by the world première of Javier De Frutos’ Elysian Fields, a piece inspired by the works of Tennessee Williams. De Frutos creates his vision of a repressed 1950s American South with very aggressive imagery. The dancers kick their legs, flick their arms and twist their heads abruptly – they are constantly in a state of repressed energy, always ready to launch into a full-blown fight. The men attack the women throughout – and not in a stylised balletic way, but with fists in faces, bodies brutally kicked. It’s not just empty aggression either, it’s a raw and sexual. Yet the women continue to lust after the men no matter what abuse has been dished out to them. The male performers as well as the women are groped, used, discarded. Their lifts are uncomfortable, awkward. Painful, even.
This intensity is compounded by Michael Hulls’ lighting design; the use of yellow and red conveys both the heat of the South as well as an inner emotional heat. Using the original composition from the film adaptation of A Streetcar Named Desire, composer Christopher Austin had to overcome the logistical hurdle of tweaking a score designed for an orchestra of 80 musicians for one of just 16. The luscious music feels just as rich as the original, transporting the audience to the American South of the 1950s while adding an incongruous dash of glamour.
The excellent cast of dancers and the exquisite music feel underexploited; Elysian Fields doesn’t really deviate from a set sequence: a read-out passage of text followed by a short routine in which people are punched and kicked. It seems to suggest that Williams’ work was only about brutality and the abuse of women; there was barely a glimpse of the other themes central to Williams’ writing, which does the playwright a disservice.
Kudos, though, to the two ‘Blanches’, Angela Towler and Gemma Nixon. Bar a slightly wonky accent, Nixon is a great actor and she conveyed Blanche’s disturbed persona and sense of betrayal clearly. Towler, meanwhile, is heartbreaking in the final sequence – even if, by then, we have already seen that sequence played through too many times for its full effect to take hold.