As part of a ‘cultural exchange’ that saw Sadler’s Wells team up with China’s National Centre for the Performing Arts and the Morning Star Ballet Foundation, the venue got to show off some of its collaborators in Beijing. Now the fruit of this partnership is being performed on the London stage.
Russell Maliphant and Christopher Wheeldon – who may be relative unknowns in China but certainly not here – have both created and revived work for the programme. Maliphant’s PastPresent was specially created for one of the two stars of the show, Fang-Yi Sheu. The haunting 1911 recording of Una Furtiva Lagrima coupled with a recurring motif of punches to herself felt like the despairing “past” of the title.
Sheu moves with a strength and clarity that belies her 42 years, and some of Maliphant’s choreography seems at least partly informed by the contracting upper body style of Martha Graham, at whose company Sheu was a principal dancer. But there’s also plenty of Maliphant in it too: the minimal travelling and footwork are countered by intricate detailing in the sculpting of the arms.
There are also some cheeky references to modern styles – the robotic, Matrix-style of slow motion, even a Michael Jackson-esque moment – though these crumple just as quickly as they appear.
As the song gives way to harsh, industrial sounds, Michael Hulls’ lighting comes into its own – the patterns in his design acting like a kaleidoscope, adding a mesmerising, magical quality to Sheu’s every move.
More impressive still is the revival of Two x Two, itself an adaptation of a solo originally created for Sylvie Guillem and a perfect vehicle for Sheu and the other star of the show, Yuan Yuan Tan. The ying and yang of the arms are set on different levels, matching the dancers’ styles: Tan in a more balletic upright position, Sheu on her knees with a contorted upper body. The intelligent lighting design, again by Hulls, creates a shadowy, delaying effect.
Wheeldon’s two pieces felt weaker by comparison. The varying styles on display in the new Five Movements, Three Repeats give the whole piece a disjointed look. This is especially problematic in the repeated section – with the four dancers (the two females joined by San Francisco Ballet’s Damian Smith and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s Clifton Brown) all seemingly performing in their own style, is too distracting. It particularly jars after the pas de deux between Tan and Smith.
That said, the much freer duet between Sheu and Brown, with the shadows of their halted movements projecting on to the backdrop, is lovely; as is Max Richter’s gorgeous composition.
After the Rain, meanwhile, takes us to classic Wheeldon territory, with minimalist costumes and music by Arvo Pärt. Tan, with her perfect ballerina body, all long limbs and hyperextensions, is made for this. But it is let down by unengaged partnering from Smith and some clumsy linking steps. This is certainly not a dance for critics of Wheeldon’s penchant for the manipulated female form: at times, Tan was literally lifted and dragged like a doll.
The evening’s mixed bill also includes Finding Light by Edwaard Liang for Tan and Smith. A short piece set to Vivaldi’s Concerto in B Major, it is crisp and assured – perhaps testament to Liang’s own New York City Ballet training. But Liang also tinkers with classical shapes: a sudden plié creeps into an arabesque and a traditional lift is altered by Tan in the foetal position. The choreography is at its most charming when his lifts and balances felt just off-balance, with a delicate swishing quality.