The stage is set as a resolutely stark white box for this performance by GöteborgsOperans Danskompani. Some drums are set up in one corner. More enigmatically, there are four pairs of black shoes lined up at the very front of the stage including a pair of vertiginous stiletto heels. It’s a clue that implied austerity might be undercut by a certain amount of quirkiness.
Noetic is the second UK premiere in two days from the company, visiting London for the first time. The company commissions and stages work from many contemporary choreographers, including Cristal Pite, Damien Jalet and Hofesh Schechter. Noetic was created in 2014 for the company by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui working with his frequent collaborator sculptor Antony Gormley. This was two years before their Icon which was presented the previous evening. Noetic does look like the earlier work. The integration of Gormley’s contribution (here giant pliable carbon fibres) into Cherkaoui’s movement does not seem quite as seamless and intrinsic as his tons of clay were to Icon.
The work begins with taiko drummer Shogo Yoshii setting about the percussion with fierce energy before the dancers enter. There are nineteen in total. The men look very formal in dark suit and tie, minus jackets, and the women are in terrifically chic little black dresses. Costume design is from the Antwerp based duo Les Hommes. It all looks tremendously elegant, but there are anomalous details: the women are also wearing knee pads, and no one initially is wearing shoes.
This is very much an ensemble performance. Cherakaoui is interested in playing with different combinations of groups, starting with groups of three and then moulding them into larger clusters where individuals are lifted and manipulated, only to dissolve and reform in different and more intricate configurations, with legs in the air or arms and hands at sharp right angles. We have at one point a forest made of legs.
The dance is loose and fluid, with much floor-based movement, sliding, slithering and rolling. Occasionally one dancer will emerge from the mass for a short solo but is always reabsorbed (a motif taken much further in the later Icon). But odd notes of non-conformity break through, increasingly as the work progresses. One of the men discards his formal waistcoat, and at one point another man is wearing one stiletto heel and one ordinary shoe. Towards the end of the piece, one of the men has swapped his suit for a dress and high heels. There are curious mutations and eccentricities in a supposedly uniform world, subversions of the evident formality.
The music by Szymon Brzóska is recorded (by the company’s own orchestra) with live contributions by the drummer and singer Miriam Andersén. When she appears, it seems to be the trigger for the women to depart and don their stiletto heels and the men their jackets and shoes. And only now, quite a way into the one-hour piece, do the dancers retrieve Gormley’s long thin rods from the front of the stage where they have been lying unnoticed. Initially, they use them to create rectangular frameworks on the floor which look like the outlines of Mondrian pictures drained of colour. The performers step briskly over these, like harassed commuters on their way to the tube.
But soon the fibres are lifted and constructed by the dancers into a variety of tableaux. At one point they could have been the swaying branches of a tree, and then rippling water. They can be a tunnel though which others progress. Joined together they become circles which could be petals of a giant flower. The transformations are beautiful and elegant and make very striking stage images. However, you can’t help but be aware that we have moved away from dancing to moving the structures about and the two elements don’t seem to be well integrated at this point.
There is a voiceover (in English), delivered by the dancers about cell division and energy at the heart of all life. It all sounds rather nerdish and earnest, and an attempt to give this stylish production a claim to greater intellectual depth. But the words don’t add that much, and some ideas are better expressed by some of the work’s images. In a melancholy moment, the dancers exit the stage and leave the spinning hoops to slowly decelerate and clatter one by one to the floor. Entropy at work: everything created must eventually run down and come to an end.
But the work concludes on a more optimistic note. Two surprisingly tender duets take place at the front of the stage as the rest of the cast set about their final construction of a giant globe. They set it spinning above their heads. We can construct a new world of our own.
The dancers are a very attractive group, formed of many nationalities but remarkably cohesive. It’s a surprise that the company hasn’t been to the Wells before as its repertoire seems a good fit for the theatre’s regular audience. Certainly judged by the sold-out house and wildly enthusiastic response a return visit would be very welcome.