Although it doesn’t happen often, I like Fado music and singing every time I hear it. The music of Portuguese locals is melancholy but there is also a lilting and tuneful air that makes it easier to listen to than the melancholy from across the border in Spain – Flamenco. But where Flamenco often couples its music firmly to dance, there is no real tradition of that for Fado and that’s something Nuno Silva, raised in Lisbon, wanted to change. Aside from growing-up with Fado, Silva is actually possessed of a good singing voice (witness work in West End musicals) and is one of the best freelance contemporary dancers in the UK, working with the likes of Maliphant, Pita, Tuckett, Oguike and de Frutos. If anybody should be able to draw a good night together on a path less travelled – when was the last time you heard Fado used in dance? – it’s him.
I should know better than to have expectations of what shows will be like, but if I had any on this I imagined perhaps something along the lines of Flamenco performances where excellent musicians and singers would do their songs on stage while dancers amplified the emotions and brought the often sad-realities to life. Silva’s conception, as director, is very different from that: there is not much singing by him and the cast of 3, but rather A Darker Shade of Fado uses music and contemporary dance to tell a love story and the darker spirits that seem against us in love and life. There are no programme notes that explain the action which revolves around a devilish spirit and a guitar maker, much in love with his trade. We know this because minutes drift depressingly by as he hones various bits of guitar in very slow real time. Eventually he rather falls for a local girl but the spirits (in the form of Nuno Silva) tempt him with a satin shimmying sex goddess (Stephanie Dufresne, who also doubled as the local girl). There is bashful love, misunderstandings, tastefully done sex and a strange dream section based on bull fighting, she the matador and the guitar maker a devilish bull.
Dam Van Huynh’s choreography is interesting, often twisting, dipping and writhing, limbs excitingly pushing out. There is little ugly here and its sensual, swirling, beauty really underpins the raw emotions. But I wish there were more of it, so much of the story telling is standing around or slow moving. Perhaps the biggest disappointment is the music – played to a custom recording augmented by the live work of multi-instrumentalist Sabio Janiak. It seemed to reference Fado only occasionally and was much more about helping set the dramatic action using a wide mix of instruments, styles and atmospheric sounds. I fancy I heard a snatch of Velvet Underground’s Heroin, some Jethro Tull flute and Hammond organ even. I’m sure they weren’t real snatches of songs but it points to how far adrift from Fado we seemed to be. Perhaps it’s best to see this piece as a contemporary dance drama, but as that it just felt too slow and confusing.
There were two bright spots in a show calling out Fado without so much Fado – the dancing of Nuno Silva and Stephanie Dufresne. I’d willingly turn out to see this seriously talented and watchable pair dance in anything and in steps by Dam Van Huynh too. Sadly I don’t think a few edits here or there will make this show sparkle and introduce lots of people to a love of Fado and contemporary dance. But I do think there is a great Fado and dance show to be done and that Silva and Dufresne are the ones to star in it as dancers and singers.