Karole Armitage and her company return to London for the first time since 1981 to present a revival of Drastic-Classicism, which debuted during that year’s Dance Umbrella and is now back, 30 years later, as part of the same festival. But first on the bill we have another work by Armitage, Three Theories. Or rather, an excerpt of it – which seems somewhat bizarre considering we are being presented with two acts from what is essentially a three-act dance.
Armitage was moved to create Three Theories in response to Brian Greene’s book, The Elegant Universe, which examines the two – most significantly, conflicting – key theories of modern physics: Einstein’s theory of general relativity and quantum mechanics, as well as a more contemporary concept, known as string theory, that seeks to reconcile the two. Having skipped the big bang and the first movement for this London premiere, Two Theories begins rapturously, with flashing lights catching different dancers mid-action. We get the sense that the lights are only revealing small snippets of everything that is going on, providing glimpses of a much larger world.
The impossibly lean dancers – the ladies in black bras and briefs, the men in black shorts – run on and off, making formations that break apart just as quickly as they are formed. Armitage keeps to a classical style, albeit an aggressive one: the female dancers perform endless kicks, développés and hyperextensions, their bodies pulled and dragged into angles that at times make the audience gasp. Added into this mix are little shakes of hands and feet and slaps, the breaking of patterns, a shaking off of conformity. The performances of Masayo Yamaguchi and Marlon Taylor-Wiles, as well as Emily Wagner, who dominates much of the piece, dazzle in their confidence and showiness.
Slowly, one by one, the dancers change into white costumes – the emergence of a new order. Now their formations are given more time, their arms move in softer and more elegant ways. The only part of this section that feels out of place is when the otherwise superb Megumi Eda bounces off her counterparts in a chain; a device which feels too literal for the rest of the piece.
At times, the choreography works just as well as a reading of sexual politics, the males and females moving with battle-like precision, a process of attack. It’s not always clear how the choreography is illuminated by the source theories, and this is presumably not helped by the fact that we do not witness the progression from its true beginning in the way Armitage had intended, but what we did see was at least entertaining.
The same cannot be said for the second piece of the evening. From the moment the first guitar was unleashed (with some unfortunate high-pitched feedback that saw a fellow critic covering her ears), in an unmelodic and piercingly loud burst of sound, you get the feeling that Drastic-Classicism is an all too apt description of what is to come. One by one, the dancers walk on, clad in black, tailor-made outfits, their poses full of attitude. This feels rebellious but only in the most adolescent way: the guitars are too loud and muffled, the costumes ‘torn’ to give a rock ’n’ roll feel. But this punky aesthetic doesn’t really work. The air guitar, the punches and the posing all felt clichéd; when one dancer ruffles one of the guitarists’ hair and steals his sunglasses, it was almost unbearable to watch.
The positioning of the musicians doesn’t quite cut it either. Live music plays a central role in the production and the musicians take up almost half of the stage; they stand close together, the dancers move around them with, and the overall effect feels claustrophobic and overly busy. If the musicians had been more spaced out it might have allowed for greater clarity of movement There is, however, one particularly strong moment, where the dancers perform a short adage, their arms move through the different ballet positions in sync. With the crashing music and the lights projecting giant shadows of these balletic figures all over the auditorium, it was suggestive of what this piece could have been.
The original production saw the choreography performed twice, the second time round with a change of costumes and the performers free to improvise, in the spirit of Merce Cunningham (whose company Armitage was a part of in the late 1970s). It’s a shame that the second half was omitted in this revival, removing this element of context. But then, that said, I don’t think I could have sat through this twice in one evening.