You can be sure Christmas is nigh when your favourite websites begin to churn out their rankings of the best cultural artefacts of the previous year. I won’t pretend to be indifferent to them, nor over-intellectualise what’s likely intended as some copy thrown together in the end-of-year wind down, these lists are nevertheless complicit in an unconscious tendency many of us have to think about culture in similar terms to a sporting contest – a hunger to have seen the best, to have our favourites prevail over the competition. Which is fine, but ultimately a bit limiting.
A slight step up from end of year lists is the 1001 X You Must Y Before You Die series, a slightly-too-big-stocking-filler with latent existential menace including such genuine titles as 1001 Plants You Must Grow Before You Die; and 1001 Golf Courses You Must Play Before You Die (assuming the endeavour doesn’t prompt you to reprioritise). This is better for flattening hierarchies of value – within such collections there is an implied equality and perhaps a wistful implication that you’d do well to live to experience all 1001 things – but it is still rooted in divisions of worth and worthlessness, a way of relating that would be blatantly suspect if applied so brazenly to people.
And so a further step up from this is a profound and personal encounter with an aesthetic experience that embraces culture as a friend not a commodity. You know, enjoying stuff for what it is and not feeling the need to compare it to everything else happening at the moment. Normally I associate such calming and pure enjoyment with dance, yet in the second interval of Ballet British Columbia’s triple-bill at Sadler’s Wells, all you can hear anyone talk about is whether the first piece was better than the second, and whether the third will be better than that.
This is because the performance is structured around works by different choreographers, all three pieces playing to Ballet British Columbia’s strength in charismatic highly charged ensemble virtuosity. The surprise is how well integrated the works are, especially given that they were conceived independently and all debuted separately elsewhere.
I keep circling back on what I rather crudely think of as the classical sonata structure– the allegro-adagio-allegro sequence was first stated within Emily Molnar’s opening piece 16 + a room and then extended across the whole: Crystal Pite’s delicate, gentle Solo Echo, leading to the final mechanistic exuberance of Sharon Eyal and Gai Behar’s Bill. This structure, combined with a standout minimalistic aesthetic design, meant that three rather abstract, narrative-less pieces formed coherence and a gripping forward momentum. In such a context, singling out a favourite, though understandable, borders on the ungenerous. The delight of this programme is the thoughtful curation and interplay of the pieces, serving incidentally as a brilliant metaphor for the Ballet British Columbia themselves, and how individualised performances lift a tight and responsive organic whole.
Tom Visser’s lighting design in Solo Echo emphasises the horizontal lines of the stage, complementing Pite’s angular choreography. The performers running, sliding, and dancing between movement sequences owe as much to martial arts as ballet. The pulsating score, pitched – correctly – just loud enough as to be uncomfortable builds a tension that is not quite released at the end (all the better as we move into the second work).
Using slow movements from two of Brahms’ cello sonatas, Solo Echo is a beautifully melancholic piece. Jay Gower Taylor’s set design bravely embraces the cliché of falling snow and gets away with it in virtue of its commitment to the theme and its flawless execution (dropping thousands of bits of paper over almost 20 minutes miraculously avoids the usual unevenness that normally attends this theatrical effect). By a happy coincident of timing, the remnants of the recent snow were so completely washed away that it managed to be affecting. Had this been tried but a week earlier when the streets around Angel were amongst the worst in North London, having such weather conditions mirrored back to you to an accompaniment of romantic cello might have palled fairly quickly.
In the second interval, amidst the debate about which of the two pieces was best, I wonder if the third will develop what we’ve already seen or merely recapitulate ideas. Quite the opposite. Eyal and Behar’s Bill is a weird but wonderful mix of clubbing robots and animalistic chant. Ballet British Columbia, both as an ensemble and individuals, have a consistently impressive talent for movement at the wrong speeds – alternating between dance that’s too fast and too slow. Throughout the three pieces this skill is used to generate and relax tension but coupled with the robotic theme is quite uncanny.
The choreographers also designed the costuming, a skin-tight off-white cladding that is tighter and more revealing than most people’s actual skin (yet because of the physical slightness of professional dancers achieves an androgynous effect). This is deployed in Omer Sheizaf’s finely-judged lighting to bring out a wealth of colour and shadow from the dancers all of which yields a singular and compelling aesthetic.
If pushed I might struggle to say what this all amounts to. Contemporary dance more than most mediums is best placed to collapse the distinction between style and substance, and despite some rather highfalutin ideas in the accompanying notes, in an abstract programme the style is the substance. And this is a very stylish production. Regardless of whether this is something you need to see before you die or will stick on a list of the best shows of the year, I think you could be entertained, wowed and moved – and why ask for more than that?
Ballet British Columbia are touring the UK until 24 March 2018. Click here for more details.