Russell Maliphant Company
maliphantworks2: Critical Mass (excerpt), Two Times Two, Still (excerpt), Duet, video installation
London, Print Room at the Coronet
7 March 2018
Russell Maliphant presented a programme of short works at the Coronet in 2017, and the intimate nature of the venue seemed ideal for a really close up view of his work. This year he returns with a programme of duets, including a new work for him and his wife Dana Fouras.
The Coronet is a converted cinema which contains, on different levels, a studio space, a performance area, and a generously proportioned bar whose sloping floor is effectively the rake of the former seating. Front of house is decorated in eclectic magpie fashion with mismatched bits of furniture, old rugs, and masses of mirrors most likely sourced from Portobello market just up the road. The performance space itself retains decaying but picturesque plasterwork. The overall effect is warm and welcoming. Its cheery clutter could not be more unlike Maliphant’s work, which is rigorous, undecorated, each movement scrupulously considered, anything unnecessary pared away.
The first half of the programme revisits some of Maliphant’s earlier successes. Critical Mass was created by Maliphant in the 1990s and was taken up by Michael Nunn and William Trevitt (the BalletBoyz) and performed extensively by them in the early 2000s. Here we see it on its creator, (now in his mid 50s and a powerful stage presence) and frequent collaborator Dickson Mbi.
Maliphant and Mbi are well matched for height. Clad in denim shirts that look like a uniform, they might be in a prison yard. They circle each other: there are pushes and pulls, slow and liquid transfers of weight. Bodies wind around each other, managing to give a sense of simultaneously cooperating and competing. I was hoping we might see rather more of the work than this ten-minute excerpt, but it does give a flavour of Maliphant’s style, drawing on all kinds of influences including martial arts.
Two Times Two also comes from Maliphant’s greatest hits collection. It was originally made for Dana Fouras (as a solo) but was taken up as a signature piece by Sylvie Guillem, whose long arcing limbs found a natural home in Maliphant’s vocabulary. This version features Dana Fouras and Grace Jabbari. They never touch and yet it does still feel like a duet. There are subtle variants in their moves as they each probe the confines of lighting designer Michael Hulls’ boxes of light, not in unison but a more complex counterpoint.
Andy Cowton’s electronic score with its sonar pings drives the movement along. As the light boxes tighten around the dancers, their hands and feet scything through the beams become like fireflies darting through the night. It’s a real pleasure to see this at close quarters. These established works are more than just star vehicles; they are solidly crafted pieces of work.
The second half starts with an excerpt from a more recent work, Still. A shirtless Dickson Mbi looks like a monumental sculpture, motionless as the sharp stripes of Michael Hulls’s lighting slide across his body. Hulls has always been a key member of the Maliphant team, with his carefully ordered effects forming an integral part of the work. Here we have the opportunity to see them so close up that we are almost immersed in them. Yet how he achieves these effects still seems mysterious. Broad stripes turn to rippling bar-code like features around the prowling Mbi as he is joined by the slender form of Grace Jabbari.
Duet, the new work for Maliphant and Fouras closes the programme. This has a surprisingly eclectic soundtrack. After bursts of static as if from a radio, a vintage recording of Una furtive lacrima tenderly sung by Caruso breaks through like the resurgence of an old memory. It’s not an overtly sentimental piece though. What the performers show us is a natural unforced harmony, an ease with each other which must be rooted in many years of shared experience. There is no sense of any movement being limited because of the maturity of the performers: both look in great shape. She curls up onto his shoulder as if it’s a favourite perch.
It’s not the only time the two appear together though. In the studio there is a newly created video installation running on a loop, featuring them both. It was filmed on a beach in Ireland by Tim Etchells and Hugo Glendinning. Here we see in split screen Maliphant and Fouras each separately confronting huge grey Atlantic waves pounding towards them. Maliphant, severe in a suit, advances a little way towards them. Fouras stands and waits for the foam to come to her. Maliphant’s work is usually so considered and so disciplined that is was quite surprising to see natural movement set against the unpredictable and uncontrollable forces of nature. You can read into it any context you please; confronting the inevitability of the end perhaps. It’s bleak but memorable.