Russell Maliphant’s 12-minute contribution to English National Ballet’s digital season is a mass of contradictions. In a brief behind-the-scenes documentary about the making of Echoes, Maliphant speaks of teaching his cast of ballet dancers his particular movement vocabulary, encouraging them to sink downwards instead of striving upwards. ‘You have to really spread your feet and feel the weight… it’s such a different way of moving for us’, says Fabian Reimar, who performs the central duet with his wife, Fernanda Oliveira. Yet in the film, the dancers’ feet are invisible. The couple appear to be floating in space, the lighting effects by Maliphant himself with video artist Panagiotis Tomaras, transforming them into weightless apparitions.
The cast of seven were told to explore the movement material devised in the studio with Maliphant in order to make it their own. Yet except for the main couple, the five other dancers are anonymous: end credits name them as Isabelle Brouwers, Eireen Evrard, Giorgio Garrett, Anjuli Hudson and Junor Souza. They appear halfway through the film, seen mostly from the waist up, in flickers of light that transform them into visual echoes of the action. All the hard physical work in the studio has become incorporeal on film, the performers converted into light reflectors.
This is Maliphant’s intention, entrusted to film-makers Michael Nunn and William Trevitt. Maliphant had previously been conjuring up the non-existence of gravity in creations for his own company, collaborating with lighting designer Michael Hulls and later with video projections by Tomaras. In maliphantworks3, Russell and his wife Dana Fouras were transfigured into ethereal beings, accompanied by a soundscape created by Fouras.
Echoes for ENB employs similar effects, also with costumes by Stevie Stewart: the top halves catch the light and long draped trousers cover the performers’ feet. The result is familiar if you know Maliphant’s work, but must be mesmerising for viewers who’ve never seen dancers appear as evanescent as fireflies.
At the start of Echoes, flickering shapes resolve into an intimate pas de deux – Oliveira and Reimar, entwined and revolving around each other to deep throbbing sounds. (Fouras is credited with the sound design.) Reimar’s face is almost always in shadow, his chin hidden by a beard; Oliveira is serenely beautiful, her blonde plait catching the light. He lifts her up, bears her upon his back, apparently floating – we barely glimpse her lower half. The mournful notes of an Armenian woodwind and a horn suggest a lament: Orpheus remembering Eurydice? After some six minutes, the couple recede into darkness, growing smaller and smaller until they vanish.
A line of celebrants, dressed like the original pair, appears along a barred floor. They surge in and out of unison, one arm extended, then winding their arms around their torsos. As the percussive thrumming quickens, they lunge, kick and swirl, legs concealed by their voluminous trousers: perhaps they are performing a rite. Strobe lighting makes it impossible to tell whether all seven dancers are present and interacting. Souza is the last to disappear, in a fleeting solo during which he seems to emit pulses of light like a dying star. The effect is unearthly, reverential – but signifying what, exactly, is left to the viewer to decide.