Russell Maliphant’s studio perches between a west London cemetery and a used car lot. The venue for the only London date for his latest tour – the artsdepot, a modern horseshoe auditorium with a generously-wide and forward-reaching stage – has an Aldi and Paddy Power bookies for neighbours in the capital’s more northerly reaches. Yet wherever Maliphant is playing, go seek him out.
Still / Current is a marvellously evocative title for Maliphant’s work, capturing the mercurially elusive quality of his choreography and his own dancing. And the good news is that Maliphant is back on stage (for some tour venues at least. Performances are shared with Adam Kirkham from the BalletBoyz). For Still / Current Maliphant’s language is typically eclectic, fusing ballet and contemporary vocabularies with martial arts – but the evening is sombrely bleak.
To credit Michael Hulls as lighting designer does not do justice to his wonderfully organic presence. Unlike a constantly torch-wielding artsdepot usherette, Hulls is never intrusive. Effects are not deployed to obscure the choreography (some other choreographers please note). Throughout, small pools of light – squares, oblongs, circles, vortexes – prescribe the limit of the dancers’ worlds. Hulls’ special alchemy establishes lighting as an equally active participant as the dancers – though his palette is unremittingly 50 shades of grey.
Two was Maliphant’s take on Maurice Béjart’s Boléro, with the audience as voyeurs. The fragility of Carys Staton’s physique made this increasingly frenzied solo, confined in its box of light, seem less of the pole dance that Sylvie Guillem made it than a woman trapped in a cell. Her limbs flail mesmerisingly, despairingly.
Seen in this context, Maliphant’s new works appear self-derivative. Still revisits the imagery of Two. Dickson Mbi is imprisoned within an illuminated barcode. Mbi has the brooding presence of a caged animal, ever more desperate as his actions are driven by pulsating lights and the drum beats of Armand Amar’s percussive score. A white-clad vision, Staton again, is less successfully incorporated – but her vicious round dance with Mbi is shocking in its ferocity.
A new duet, Interrupted Current revisits Push with images recognisably quoted. Where Push was a couple’s extended game of control with its shifting weights and balances, Interrupted Current is altogether more combative. The mottled floor of light suggests dried blood. We could be watching scenes from a fight as Maliphant and Staton stretch and pull away from each other but the way the lighting repeatedly blacks out fractures any attempt to build a narrative. Stasis is impossible, as a rug of light is pulled literally from under the feet of the dancers.
Less convincing, again, was the conclusion. A lightning storm shatters the relationship and the rug splits. We see two individuals making sense of what they have experienced – before, in a forced coda, the lighted rugs coalesce and there is a reunion of sorts. Interrupted Current sums up the status of this couple and the fractured flow of Maliphant’s choreography.
Traces is not major Maliphant, a makeweight to bulk out the programme. We begin with a repetitiously circling, moony Thomasin Gülgeç, a modern day Romeo perhaps, his torso beautifully arched in yearning. With the arrival of Maliphant and Mbi, we could be among the Jets and Sharks. Menace crackles in a precision display of circling batons in a ritualised stand-off between gang members. In the soft gloom of Hull’s diffused lighting, batons blur, as they are manipulated with increasing velocity, Maliphant reworking his spiraling circles of light from an ad for Audi here. Mbi and Gülgeç are strong combatants but it is Maliphant who is the sharpest, lithest, most precisely controlled performer.
Do we need to appreciate the biographical context of Vaslav Nijinsky’s mental state, the starting point for Afterlight (Part One) to work? Not in Gülgeç’s performance. The opening image of him, his head anonymous in a hood, suggests everyman. Trapped in the shadows of Hull’s ever-rotating pool of light, Gülgeç’s movements suggest somebody – anybody – emerging afresh into the world after a violent physical or emotional shock. In the second, more brightly lit sequence, Gülgeç could be a rough sleeper, awakening to the hope of another day, his movements full of instability and aching emotion. But by the end, as an ever-decreasing vortex of light pulls Gülgeç into darkness and stillness, performance, design and choreography fuse totally.
This is an immensely satisfying programme not least for Maliphant’s own dancing with its steel centre and tender reach. Whisper it quietly, he is almost 52; there cannot be many more opportunities to see him as performer – linger not.
With Russell Maliphant performing Still / Current tours to Hereford and Nottingham. With Adam Kirkham dancing, the programme visits Birmingham, Exeter and Ipswich. Various dates until 26 October 2013.