A photon of light emitted from the sun takes eight minutes to reach Earth. Hence the name of Alexander Whitley’s first full-length production for the main stage at Sadler’s Wells. Yes, solar physics is the inspiration for this hour-long piece – Whitley has worked with the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Oxfordshire and namechecks a “lead scientist” in the programme notes. His choreography takes equal billing with Daniel Wohl’s electronic score and Tal Rosner’s video art. This is a project with serious intent – but it doesn’t always have the wherewithal to meet its grand ambition.
A friendly, professorial voiceover marks different phases in the piece. We start, for instance, with the “different points of view you get when you change the level of magnification” – Whitley’s seven dancers twist, dip and arc in the semi-darkness as we’re asked to consider how “individual dots add up to some kind of sense” and the backdrop is intermittently covered in mini flares of lightbeams. The dancers start to move faster and closer together, sometimes pulled with one purpose, then moving in slow-motion. They link arms to create masses and chains of movement, then leave the stage one by one. Rigorous structure in science and in dance are thus linked – although this is far from new choreographic ground – but it’s a train of thought that rather peters out. This is a recurring problem.
As the piece builds momentum, Wohl’s music – sometimes ethereal, sometimes ear-splitting – and especially Rosner’s visuals seem to muscle their way to the forefront; there are times when the dancers, in rubbery black bodysuits, are overwhelmed by the pyrotechnics on the back screen – morphing blocks of colour, lava-like flows of red dots, satellite images, speeded-up sequences of city driving and glowing orbs. And there’s one point when over-harsh lighting leaves them sadly exposed – 8 Minutes reaches for the monumental, but at moments such as this you sense that’s too big a burden for such a small group of performers.
There are some captivating sequences, however. One duet starts as something akin to a series of small collisions before stretching out into a more mutually supportive meeting of bodies. As Whitley switches to think about how the sun shapes our daily lives on Earth, his dancers adopt a stylised vibrating movement that makes them look as though they have been captured on sped-up film, at once futuristic and quaintly old-fashioned. When a swarm of oversized pixels fill the back screen, the dancers converge for a mini-rave, as though luxuriating in heat and light, reminiscent of a similar point in Wayne McGregor’s Tree of Codes. And a fiery image of the sun that comes slowly, mesmerically closer until it fills the whole screen is suitably awe-inspiring, and is met by a more thrillingly urgent pace to the dance.
When the choreography loses these sharp senses of purpose, however, it can seem like a handful of people just milling about. And although a sense of wonder at the cosmos is certainly present in 8 Minutes, there’s not an awful lot of illumination.