It’s been a couple of years since we’ve seen Rambert, and a full nineteen years since we last saw Ghost Dances – which was the prime motivator for coming to see this revival at Sadler’s Wells. Over the decades it has remained my absolute favourite dance and – whilst being fully aware that this sounds completely pretentious – I truly consider it one of the cultural foundations on which my whole life has been based. I first saw it way back when, in the seas of time, with my friends Lord Liverpool and the Countess of Cockfosters – a mere slip of a thing we were – so it was only right that we invited them to join us for what would be their first time of seeing it in 36 years. How the hell can it be that long ago?
But there’s a twist with this programme from Rambert – they’ve created Rambert2, a company for 18 to 25 year old dancers. It’s good for companies to keep evolving, suiting the needs of the age and the tastes of the dance fan base; and there are other dance outfits – Nederlands Dans Theater springs instantly to mind – who have a “young persons” troupe as well as their standard company. When we first saw NDT2 we were totally blown away by their vigour, commitment, skill and enormous sense of daring and fun. Would the new Rambert2, who dance the first, second and fourth dances in this programme, be the same?
The proof of the pudding is in the dancing! The first dance of the evening was Grey Matter, choreographed by Benoit Swan Pouffer, Rambert’s Guest Artistic Director whilst they find a replacement for Mark Baldwin. This is not, incidentally, to be confused with Didy Veldman’s Greymatter that she choreographed for Rambert in 1997. The programme notes remind us that Grey Matter refers to our brain cells, and that the dance is about a person who loses sight of their memories, and a community grows around them giving them support. However! I have to say, I didn’t get that narrative from watching the dance at all. For me, the costumes of the dancers suggested to me that they were all individual pieces of brain matter; neurons, electrical impulses, even infected material that the other healthy brainy globules united to crush. They were all individual parts of a functioning brain; supportive, defensive, communicative. The young dancers were on fine form, and gave a great performance. The lighting also added a huge amount of atmosphere and suspense; the choreography amused me, but I couldn’t actually put my finger on ascribing a style to it. Definitely exhilarating, and extremely curious.
Next up was Rafael Bonachela’s E2 7SD. He created it in 2004; it’s obviously a postcode so I checked it out with Google Maps and it takes us to Horatio House, Horatio Street, Hackney. Seems pretty random; maybe like the random conversations that form part of the street soundscape that accompanies this modern duet, performed with robust conviction by Meshach Henry and Darlyn Perez. To me this felt like the several stages of a big argument, with a number of “I love you but I hate you” moments. I admired it enormously, but I have to say I didn’t emotionally engage with it.
Then came, for us, The Big One. Christopher Bruce’s Ghost Dances, danced by the (fractionally) more mature Rambert dancers, to traditional folk music from South America. Originally created as a response to the horrors of the Pinochet regime in Chile, three eerie and cruel ghost dancers stalk the land, watching and waiting for the chance to eliminate members of the community with a simple crush of the head, or a callous mimicry of their dance movement. No one is exempt from their power; but no one stays dead for ever, as the people continue to fight back to lead their ordinary lives and maybe one day overthrow the tyrants. My personal favourite section is Papel de Plata, where a chirpy young man leads some girls a merry dance by lovin’ and leavin’ them as young men are sometimes wont to do, only to be taken by the ghost dancers before he’s had a chance to ask the fourth girl out. Lord Liverpool and the Countess of Cockfosters confessed they had tears throughout Dolencias, their favourite section – but then they knew they would. The music was played live by band of six, including the traditional instruments played by Forbes Henderson, who played for the original production all those years ago, and was a member of the group Incantation, who brought the South American sound into the British charts in the 1980s.
It was a stunning performance all round, most notably from the trio of Ghost Dancers, Miguel Altunaga, Joshua Barwick and Liam Francis, who were most maliciously ruthless in their extermination of their fellow countrymen. But everyone performed with a tremendous sense of story-telling and an awful lot of heart. We all absolutely loved it.
Final dance of the evening, and back to the young blood of Rambert2, was the fabulously named Killer Pig, which is what you get if you push Peppa just an oink too far. A cluster of eight dancers crowd in a corner of the stage, almost like this is the area where they go to get their batteries recharged, before they’re off and cavorting all over the place, much of the time on tiptoe but moving as if they’re wading through hot mud, the girls dressed discreetly in vests and hot pants, the boys in what looked disarmingly like oversized diapers. It’s a challenge on every aspect, but the pulsating rhythm and the commitment of the dancers carries you away with them. The incessant hyperactivity was broken up a couple of times by some brief solos, one of which, by Salome Pressac, absolutely took our breath away. Much of the time Hua Han takes centre stage, and he shocks you with his extraordinarily flexible limb-work. After a while I got the sense that the dancers were trying to outdo each other by attempting parodies of classical ballet stances and elements, but this is one of those dances that if you try to follow a narrative, you’re really leading yourself up the garden path. Whatever, it went down huge in Sadler’s Wells, and we all absolutely succumbed to its flashy fun.
The thirteen dancers who make up Rambert2 are certainly a spirited, energetic and talented group; it would be fascinating to see them perform something a little more lyrical next time. Their tour (without Ghost Dances, alas) continues into next year, visiting Norwich, Exeter, Belfast, Guildford, Oxford and Winchester.
Recent production photos by Foteini Christofilopoulou.