Nitin Sawhney with special guests Sébastien Ramirez & Honji Wang
Concert following the release of his latest album Dystopian Dream
London, Royal Albert Hall
2 November 2016
Interview with Sebastien Ramirez and Honji Wang
British musician and composer Nitin Sawhney has an exhaustive list of scores to his name – for TV shows, video games, theatre productions and more – plus a long history of collaborating with high-profile artists, from Paul McCartney to Sting to John Hurt. On the dance side he’s teamed up extensively with fellow Sadler’s Wells Associate Artist Akram Khan, receiving a Bessie in 2008 for his score to Khan’s Zero Degrees.
This week Sawhney performed a one-off concert at the Royal Albert Hall (RAH) featuring music from his 2015 album Dystopian Dream. Joining him were seven instrumentalists, five vocalists, including Joss Stone, and dancers/choreographers Sébastien Ramirez and Honji Wang of Perpignan-based Wang Ramirez. With its shuffling line-up and Sawhney’s casual chatter on the mic, the evening lacked the pomp you might associate with the RAH, though not the audience devotion – the crowd was steadfastly attentive, breaking focus only to offer occasional whoops of appreciation.
Wang and Ramirez danced on four of the 24 songs played, each time presenting a theatrical, urban choreography flecked with visible ballet, contemporary, breaking and even martial arts components. In a recent Q&A, the pair described their choreographic language as “a development of our individual experiences and training, combined into one flow where we meet and use friction to find the right harmony.”
This fascination with friction was evident across all the work they presented, as was their self-professed taste for “intense, powerful moves” and “illusions that could look unreal in one way and play with flow.” A dance to “Time Trap,” a percussive composition with beautiful, fast-moving guitar strums, began with Wang on her own, bathed in amber light, punching out a series of clipped, angular shapes, and swiftly evolved into a wild push-and-pull of jerking hips and breakneck slides as Ramirez joined the proceedings. A contrast between soft and rough was central to the aesthetic, with smooth waving motions constantly interrupted by sharp elbows and halts.
The music mellowed for their second routine, here featuring a layered chorus of soft female voices, but the dance remained fast and tense, with big body rolls and springy dives giving way to freezes and blunt contractions at every turn. The pair’s style has been described as ‘urban tanztheater’, and indeed a few Pina Bausch-style antics emerged amid the street moves, like Wang cheekily demanding kisses from Ramirez and later yanking a chair out from under him only to find him happily remaining seated in the air. Like the robotic, Coppelia-esque gestures that emerged in the final phrase, these were cute, but it was the reactive quality of the choreography that stood out most – the volatile bounces and recoils that ensued whenever the two came into contact.
The dancers likened their relationship to “yin and yang” in our interview, and indeed there’s a tidy harmony to their alliance: her small stature to his tall, broad one, his big, bouncy lunges to her tight, furious thrusts. In “Redshift,” a pounding instrumental number, they spent much of the sequence connected by their hands, whipping each other around the stage and snaking through the negative space between their bodies. A jazzy vibe surfaced a few times, almost as if they were performing a swing dance, but a combative mood prevailed, encouraged by cutting martial arts-inspired jabs and ducks.
Resistance and urgency continued to be defining features in their final piece, performed to a recorded techno song. Precarious leans, rolls and handstands, including one where Ramirez leapt onto and then straight back off of his hands, joined jolting start/stops and the odd pop and lock – a textured, engaging combination. Both dancers have experience with commercial dance – Wang performed in Madonna’s 2015/16 Rebel Heart Tour, which Ramirez choreographed for – and it’s easy to picture this work in particular featuring in a music video or a pop concert.
Between the dance pieces the band sampled an array of styles and sounds, from the angsty, guitar-led “Falling” to the meditative “Spirals,” featuring a voluptuous hang drum. “Tuyo,” Sawhney’s composition for the TV show Narcos, was especially well-received, a sultry offering with insistent drums, sharp trills and guttural Spanish vocals.
It’d be a misnomer to call the evening a dance show – I was hoping Wang Ramirez would have more stage time than they did, given their prominent billing – but it was a cohesive production in any case, with some bracing, if fleeting, choreography on offer.