Liang / Maliphant / Wheeldon
An Evening Featuring Fang-Yi Sheu and Yuan Yuan Tan
Finding Light, Present/Past, After the Rain, Five Movements, Three Repeats, Two x Two
London, Sadler’s Wells
14 November 2013
Gallery of pictures by Dave Morgan
Sadler’s Wells enjoys presenting programmes that contrast performers from different backgrounds: Akram Khan and Sylvie Guillem; Guillem and Robert Wilson; Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Shaolin Monks. The latest co-commission featured two Chinese women, Fang-Yi Sheu, formerly with the Martha Graham Company, and Yuan Yuan Tan, principal dancer with the San Francisco Ballet. Sheu is from Taiwan, Tan from Shanghai; they joined forces in Beijing last November for a festival at the National Theatre for the Performing Arts.
That show was the basis for their Sadler’s Wells programme, with commissioned works from Edwaard Liang and Russell Maliphant, and two existing pieces by Christopher Wheeldon. The women were joined by two men from American companies: Clifton Brown (ex- Alvin Ailey Dance Theater) and Damian Smith (San Francisco Ballet). No sets – just glorious lighting designs playing essential roles in the performances.
Appropriately, the opening duet by Liang was entitled Finding Light. Set to an extract from a Vivaldi Concerto, it featured Tan as weightless as the puff of mist that drifted above the darkened stage. The silvery lighting was by Adam Carrée. Damien Smith partnered Tan in yearning lifts as though trying to hold onto an elusive being until she finally yielded across his knees. She has matured as a dance artist since we first saw her with San Francisco Ballet (at the 2003 Edinburgh Festival, then at the Wells), when she appeared almost too fragile to be handled in pas de deux.
Fang-Yi Sheu, unfamiliar here, is both delicate and powerful. In Present/Past, Michael Hulls’s lighting revealed first her face, then her hands and upper body as she circled a pool of light. Maliphant’s choice of a 1911 recording of Enrico Caruso singing Una Furtiva Lagrima (A Furtive Tear) turned her into a mournful, contemporary Dying Swan, until a switch to Andy Cowton’s percussive music galvanised her into ferocious action. Maliphant made use of Sheu’s Graham-trained control in sinking to the floor and rising from it to carve great arcs of movement.
Wheeldon’s pas de deux from his ballet After the Rain (2005) requires sustained melancholy throughout its 11 minutes to Arvo Pårt’s shimmering music for piano and violin. Originally made for Wendy Whelan and Jock Soto of New York City Ballet, the pas de deux is an elegy, a farewell to an idealised woman. Slender Tan, in a skimpy pink leotard, long hair loose, sailed in Smith’s arms like an ondine or the figurehead of a ship. In soft slippers instead of pointe shoes, she seemed infintely malleable, her long legs as flexible as a crane fly’s. A proven audience pleaser, After the Rain trumped Liang’s Finding Light in the dreamiest pas de deux to familiar music stakes.
Fortunately, Wheeldon’s quartet, Five Movements, Three Repeats (2011) is tougher stuff. All four dancers made their own statements to Max Richter’s music, which includes a remix of Dinah Washington singing This Bitter Earth. Sheu was integrated as an equal partner with Brown, both sharing their weight in strongly grounded positions. Tan, on pointe, was airy, interlocked with Smith as her loyal support. In between the duets, all four danced their own phrases simultaneously, repeating the sequence three times in different directions. Lighting by Mary Louise Geiger added projected shadows to the complex piece, which was a challenge for performers and audience alike.
Finally, both women performed alongside each other the arm-flailing solo that Maliphant devised for Dana Fouras, his dancer wife, and passed to Sylvie Guillem in 2009. Now called Two x Two, it showcased the distinctive qualities of Tan, long and elegant, and Sheu, fiercely martial, as their scything hands and forearms were illuminated in separate pyramids of light (Michael Hulls again). The strobing effect, curiously prefigured by Sheu in Wheeldon’s quartet, resulted in a pyrotechnic blur that obliterated its creators – a fleeting dance of light.