Rambert’s autumn season is built around a bold 45-minute commission given to Marguerite Donlon – a name some will not be familiar with. I first came across Donlon a few years ago in Hamburg when her Saarbrücken-based company (comprising about 20 dancers) were in the Nijinsky gala dancing Parade – the 1917 Ballets Russes work with choreography by Léonide Massine and the famous cubist sets by Picasso. (link to picture). I was dreadfully impressed because you don’t normally associate modern choreographer-led companies with burrowing back and resurrecting the past in this way (quite probably ignorance on my part, I appreciate). Donlon’s background (DanceTabs interview) is Irish dancing and ballet (English National Ballet under Schaufuss) before moving to Germany and developing as a choreographer and director – all up it left me with a strong feeling of not your average dance maker and one, also, with strong theatrical flare.
And in Labyrinth of Love Donlon delivers a strong theatrical piece to Rambert – visually stunning with its high-resolution projected sets, white – sometimes fringed – costumes, stage-wide ledge for surprise entrances (all the work of Conor Murphy and Mat Collishaw) and with Charles Balfour’s chic moody lighting. But we also get an original Michael Daugherty score and Soprano Kirsty Hopkins very much integrated into the dance. In Daugherty’s succinct words: “Labyrinth of Love is inspired by love poetry and prose written by or about woman spanning over 2,000 years – from Sappho to Elizabeth Taylor.”
It’s all a fine idea and in movement terms we get elements of ballet, interesting Wayne McGregor contortions and twitches and general contemporary noodling, as well as fun entrances. But while I enjoyed the constant visuals of sets and dancing I never generally broke through to embrace the thoughts on women and what it had to say there. After 30 minutes I thought that was enough. I think a major part of this was that the lyrics were very hard to hear and so one couldn’t readily navigate the piece. I’d love to see it again, armed with the words. It sounds defeatist but what’s really needed is surtitles. All up a wonderful creative endeavour, a great looker, but an extra dash of audience accessibility is needed. We go “Wow”, rather than “Wow, I really loved what that had to say”.
The rest of the evening was a delight. Paul Taylor’s Roses harks back a contemporary generation or two in its dance take on women, men and love. Simple costumes, simple backdrop and glorious movement untainted by modern visuals like assertive walking for instance – instead there is skipping and fast foot shuffles (the equivalent of ballet bourrées). This is love, relationships and community as you want it with five couples in tableaus (think modern Les Sylphides) while some dancers display to the front. And just when you think it’s over a sixth couple emerge to give a glorious duet where at times they shadow and mirror one another’s movement – they could touch but they don’t. Roses is 27 years old and proudly shows new generations a softer palette of movement than we are used to now (away from ballet stages anyway) and long may it do so.
Richard Alston’s Dutiful Ducks, created originally for a young Michael Clark, is over before it begins – but one can’t fail to smile at its recited verbal gymnastics and Dane Hurst’s fast swirling and rolls – a stage magnet is Hurst. The constant aural and visual repetition is a good lead-in to Merce Cunningham’s Sounddance. Ten dancers steadily emerge from behind a curtain swagged as if kidnapped from a Parisian bordello but then mysteriously dyed light orange. David Tutor’s score starts with the chirping of crickets and tweeting of birds but over its 17 minutes morphs into more industrial sounds – is this evolution? Well you could see very much in it (*) or you could see a restless inventive mind constantly stirring up dancers in breathless new ways and after perfect stirring a perfect exit as they individually spin off through the curtain to, no doubt, another time dimension. Another piece to see many times, I fancy. Sounddance is the tenth Cunningham work that Rambert have taken into their repertoire – with the demise of Merce’s original company, it’s a very good thing they do.
(*) There’s a good review of Sounddance by Sarah Kaufman, from 2009, when she talks not only about the work (and where the title comes from) but also Cunningham in general.