April may be the cruellest month, but this strong showing from National Dance Company Wales has been a definite bright spot on the calendar. The delightful bill, part of the small but mighty Cardiff-based troupe’s spring tour, started in hushed tones and went out with a bang, offering a generous splash of wit and pathos in between. On show were three contemporary pieces: a rep work by rehearsal director Lee Johnson, a selection of Alexander Ekman’s Tuplet (originally choreographed for Cedar Lake Dance Company), and the premiere of new artistic director Caroline Finn’s first piece for NDCWales.
Up first was Johnson’s They Seek To Find The Happiness They Seem, an urgent, intimate duet centred on what the choreographer calls “the impenetrable inner world between couples.” The piece reads like a relationship on fast-forward: one minute Matteo Marfoglia and Elena Thomas are hungry, curious lovers, their hands grasping at each other’s lips, and the next they’re confident partners moving in sync across the stage. By the end of the work, the two operate as foils, his postures high where hers are low – a nod, perhaps, to the harmonious cooperation that buoys healthy long-term relationships.
The choreography, anchored by smooth undulations, grows increasingly charged as rhythmic thrusts and chugs supplant its velvety base – a development both dancers handled confidently. I was particularly drawn to the athletic undertones, which see even the simplest movements beholden to engaged cores and limb muscles on lock, and to Joe Fletcher’s warm lighting design, which employed a lovely chiaroscuro effect to highlight these powerful stances.
The mood boomeranged with Ekman’s Tuplet, a frisky and frequently funny experiment in rhythm and percussion. I didn’t warm to the piece immediately – the first few minutes are a bizarre blaze of improvised hissing and lip-smacking from the six dancers – but once it kicked off in full, I found myself quickly swept up in Ekman’s playful choreography.
The first half is a free-flowing mix of solos and group phrases peppered with wiggles, twists, cocked hips and jazzy hands, plus all manner of body percussion, from clapping to thigh-slapping to tongue-clicking. Then comes the centrepiece, a raucous light show in which the dancers line up at the front of the stage and spotlights flick on and off to reveal sharp poses and quick ditties from individuals. At one point, the score – a blend of blasting electronica and quirky narrations from Mikael Karlsson – dwindles to a roll call of the dancers’ names. The performers in question respond with designated poses, quickly establishing a code of sorts, and punchy sequences follow as the recording reels off random strings of names: “Sam” (kick), “John” (curtsey), “Sam” (kick), “Sam” (kick) and so forth. The dancers’ freewheeling grins kept the proceedings light-hearted and engaging, as did their cool, collected handling of the fleet-footed choreography.
The programme closed with the debut of Finn’s Folk, inspired by social dynamics and people’s tendency to act differently in groups compared to when they’re alone. Fletcher’s fantastical set dressing – a giant tree suspended upside down from the ceiling – proved a fitting backdrop for the zany antics of the cast, a menagerie of oddball characters plucked straight from an old world oil painting. There are men wearing dresses and performing tangos, women leaping from piles of leaves and shouting in French, crowds shuffling in unison and jigging in discord. On paper, such details sound potentially alienating, but charismatic smiles and commendable technique ensured a warm, winsome mood prevailed.
Finn’s choreography intersperses unusual shapes and jerky, puppet-like manoeuvres amid winding, silky phrases, a rewarding blend that incorporates some pretty amazing feats, including one man leaping effortlessly over a woman’s head as she arches her back. A series of elaborate, poised tableaux go a long way in furthering the painting imagery, while samples of traditional regional music – Cretan compositions, Venetian barcaroles, Spanish ballads, African drums – neatly underscore the ‘folk’ theme.
In the programme notes, Finn and chief executive Paul Kaynes call the selections for NDCWales’ spring tour “so diverse in both choreographic language and visual design that we feel sure [they’ll] spark a curiosity to see the company again.” They’re not wrong – I look forward to checking back in with the troupe the next time it’s in town.