National Youth Dance Company
in Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s Frame[d]
London, Sadler’s Wells
10 April 2015
Gallery of pictures by Stephen Wright
The choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui has presented many shows at Sadler’s Wells though never with such a young and exuberant cast as the 38 members of the National Youth Dance Company. In Frame[d] Cherkaoui revisits some elements from his back catalogue and reworks them into a new piece. This is the third year of the National Youth Dance Company. Each year in May at workshops run across the country 30 dancers in England aged 16 to 19 are selected to form a company, joining a handful of graduates from the previous year. Led by a different Guest Artistic Director each year, over the course of a series of residences, a work is created to be given a premiere performance at Sadler’s Wells before touring the country in summer.
Rework rather than a completely new creation is perhaps the consequence of the compressed time scale available for preparation as these dancers are in full time education. However Cherkaoui is already in the habit of returning to his previous works and adapting them. Last year he presented 4D in the Sadler’s Sampled season which pulled together four different duets from earlier pieces and presented them as a whole. Here the earlier works he returns to are Loin (not seen here before), Puz/zle, TeZukA and Babel (words).
It’s the last of these (choreographed with Damien Jalet) that provides the key element of the set for this production: five large, differently scaled frames made of steel. These can be manoeuvred with considerable ingenuity by the dancers into a variety of shapes and constructions, suggesting anything from passengers all squashed together on a tube train when all the cast are packed together, a prison cell with a single frantic inmate, or a temple with a meditative monk. These frames were originally designed by Antony Gormley and have been recreated here on a slightly smaller scale to fit the stages where the production will be touring later.
The 38 dancers come in all sorts of sizes, body types and skin tones, with different interests. The majority of them are already attending Centres for Advanced Training (CAT schemes) up and down the country. Many previous company members have moved on to further dance training after their experience. Like the previous year, the male intake slightly outnumbers the female. They are a fabulously eclectic bunch, costumed in a cheery variety of outfits in anything from baggy pants and t shirts to shiny tight leggings and glittery tops.
The dancers take on Cherkaoui’s style unselfconsciously, with his trademark soft boneless passages melting into the floor contrasted with sharp fierce outbreaks of confrontation and poses suggesting combat and martial arts. There’s a remarkable open-hearted quality about their performance, a willingness to get stuck in, whether that be in rolling across the floor, moving the scenery or in some ambitious and gender-blind partnering. They not only have to dance but at one point also to deliver a spoken commentary on the nature of particles and how they connect and interact. It’s remarkable how cohesive they seem, given how quickly the work is put together.
The cast themselves are so numerous that Cherkaoui can use them as the scenery themselves with lines of dancers laid out across the floor letting movement ripple through them, or building up a human pyramid for the final scene. Most of the work uses the dancers as a mass but there are little vignettes where each dancer can command our attention. There’s a duet where a girl tentatively runs her fingers up and down her partner’s arms and over his head and face, and he gently reciprocates, which is a quiet and intimate moment. The duet develops in a less conventional way: he lifts her, but then she lifts him, repeatedly. There’s another striking scene where one male dancer tugs around two ostensibly dead male bodies who nevertheless fall with beautiful symmetry.
The show runs for an hour straight through, preceded by a short black and white film about the rehearsal process. Sometimes the work has an episodic feel where perhaps some of the joins between the original materials show, and there seemed to be a few false endings before we reached a conclusion. However it held the attention throughout and was a testing challenge for its energetic and committed cast which was a rewarding experience for both them and the audience.
The NYDC has been funded for a further three years, and the real test of its impact may be revealed in years to come if we see successful contemporary dancers in our companies who can point back to it as a formative experience and opportunity. Next year’s Artistic Director is Michael Keegan-Dolan of Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre. The national tour of Frame[d] in July goes to Birmingham, Newcastle, Leeds, Ipswich, Bournemouth and Plymouth. Do catch it if you want to enjoy the energy and shared commitment of its young performers.