It’s been something of a coup for Scottish Ballet to be the first British company to present a work by the much in-demand Crystal Pite. Getting a slice of Pite is not so easy – she doesn’t overcommit and works around her family and life. The result is that whatever she does is hugely anticipated and the quality always seems to be there. Oh that some other in-demand choreographers did less and thought more. The Scottish Ballet acquisition isn’t a new piece but one of her most lauded works, Emergence, originally created for the National Ballet of Canada in 2009. And in Edinburgh it brought the house down when premiered last week at the Festival Theatre.
Emergence is about bees/swarm intelligence and put like that it kind of feels more an interesting experiment than a dazzling display of modern ballet that raises the spirits. But, of course, it’s down to the movement, stupid, and Pite moves bodies in new ways and arranges them collectively in deeply satisfying groups. Based on seeing some earlier works, I think of her as somebody who moves dancers in a very human manner, but here (initially) she is channelling a very alien insect world and later one of almost militaristic efficiency that parallels the structure of big ballet companies. Her disjointed insect-like movement for individual dancers startles, but as the numbers ramp up, to Owen Belton’s driving score, the clever references to ballet tradition come forth, not least when a line of leg-wielding female dancers menacingly sweep all before them across the stage. Later the men of the company have the ascendancy, standing powerfully tall as the females peck their way through the ranks in their own shifting lines – the stage shimmers with the beauty of it.And then more power comes along, in one of the most photographed sections, as arms raise and, in perfect unison, snap together – the energy coming out to us is palpable and incredible. Scottish Ballet look way bigger than their numbers might suggest and are drilled to perfection (not a word I use loosely) by the company’s Hope Muir, who’s had a long association with Pite and the piece. Emergence is being toured by Scottish Ballet this autumn and it’s not to be missed.
The evening opened with a curiosity from another choreographer respected for breaking moulds – Angelin Preljocaj. His MC 14/22 (Ceci est mon corps) was originally created for his own company in 2000 and mounted on Paris Opera Ballet in 2004. It’s not so well known as Emergence and is a tougher piece to like from a standing start. But I saw it a second time in Edinburgh and really warmed to it much more, though at 55 minutes it really remains too long for its own good. MC 14/22 is nominally a work for 12 men about the Last Supper. In actuality it’s a much bigger piece that makes you think about religion generally, the camaraderie of men and the wretched and cruel side of human nature. It’s presented as a series of scenes and opens with the very slow washing of one man by another – both devotional and erotic – while on the other side of the stage a dancer marks out his world with parcel tape on the floor. It’s rather mystifying. It ends with an Escher-like perpetual circle of men bravely jumping from a cliff into the arms of their cohort below. Faith breeds faith, it seems to say. But before that we get other examples of faith’s indestructibility, first as a dancer tries to sing a devotional song (in falsetto) as two others sabotage and progressively abuse him to make it all sound rather comical, while the man stays serene and steadfast to his task. In a second scene a dancer keeps repeating some set steps despite being progressively parcel-taped up until he can’t move at all and lies dead on the floor. We all laugh at first, as he blindly hops around, but it’s chilling stuff. Elsewhere there is more group movement, all strongly macho, and controlling. And occasionally they all stop and we see a scene as if they were freeze-frame arranged for a different Last Supper painting.
Despite its length, I’d like to see more of MC 14/22 and while it’s not touring this autumn I’d be gobsmacked if Scottish didn’t present it next year. As in Emergence the dancers give their all and Christopher Hampson, the SB Artistic director, could not ask for more from them. This is a bill that really underlines the commitment of the company to ballet’s future and that it can dance it with such snappy electrifying conviction, while also delivering the narrative works that people thrive on, is a huge credit to them. Outside London Scottish Ballet’s sense of adventure makes them the UK company to watch, and I hope London audiences get to see more of them, especially in work like this.