Melissa Blease reviews national dance company Rambert’s Grey Matter, E2 7SD, Ghost Dances and Killer Pig, on at Theatre Royal Bath until 17 November
Given the company’s dazzling reputation for introducing audiences to modern dance so innovative that each performance feels as though it’s almost ahead of it’s time, it may come as a surprise to many to learn that Rambert – renowned for commissioning the most exciting choreographers, composers, and designers in the field of modern dance – is Britain’s oldest dance company, widely credited to have heralded the birth of British ballet.
The company was established back in 1926 when Marie Rambert and her students presented A Tragedy of Fashion by Frederick Ashton at Hammersmith’s Lyric Theatre – but in Rambert world, time never stands still. This year, the company launched Rambert2: a junior company comprising recent dance graduates aged 18-25 (800 auditioned; just 13 were chosen) performing works by distinguished choreographers in theatres and schools across the UK.
Dynamic, compelling and, at times, spine-tingly emotive, all four of the dances bought to Bath on Rambert’s annual visit to the city were a captivating, reinvigorating wake-up call to the senses.
Opening with choreographer Benoit Swan Pouffer’s Grey Matter – inspired by the mass of neuronal cells that control memory, speech, muscle control and movement, at their most efficient in our mid-twenties but swiftly declining as time takes it’s inevitable toll on our corporeal existence – we were immediately invited into the distinctly unique province of Rambert. Despite the cacophonic soundtrack and relentlessly energetic, urgent pace, the dignified elegance that underpinned the overall theme (slick synchronisation; soothing physical landscapes) could ultimately be described as optimistic, despite the evocative, somewhat strabilious subject matter.
Similarly, Rafael Bonachela’s E2 7SD (named after the postcode for the London neighbourhood where the dancers of the work’s initial performances lived) is an aural roller coaster ride set to a jagged ‘sound sculpture’ of urban clamour. Starting off on a flat, fluid track before soaring and plummeting along to themes of emotional aggression and competitive forces within the relationships we forge with others, it’s a disconcerting, slightly foreboding but ultimately harmonious piece that lingers in the subconscious long after the curtain drops.
Christopher Bruce’s Ghost Dances, meanwhile – arguably the most popular work in Rambert’s history, created by Bruce in 1981 to protest the brutality of the Pinochet regime in Chile – has lingered long in my subconscious since I first saw it over a decade ago and caught up with again last year, on its first revival outing.
Even though the ethereal, sinister charms of a this powerfully affecting work – performed here by the senior company – become ever more resonant with age it feels, in the context of this particular programme, as though we’re peeking into Rambert’s diary, celebrating some kind of remembrance of things past – which is perhaps fitting, given the theme.
Three masked figures – skeletons, corpses, spectres or highwaymen? – prowl a rocky terrain, intermingling with the characters – victims, prey… or ghosts? – they coexist with. The vibe is eerily ominous, the ghouls chillingly threatening, and yet the music (sweet, wistful Latin American folk rhythms and panpipes) lulls us into a place of peace despite the portents of doom.
And on we prance back to the future again, to Sharon Eyal’s 50-minute finale scored by Ori Lichtik. At some points almost stressfully loud and brazenly laden with deliciously ostentatious vigour throughout, Killer Pig screams Youth, Confidence and Attitude. Think catwalk strut, nightclub dance floor, Vogue magazine and Voguing; think, one part Andrew Logan’s Alternative Miss World, one part John Water’s Mondo Trasho, one part Andy Warhol’s Factory, one part clever, modern tribute to classical ballet (or, perhaps, a subtle taunt to tradition?)… but all parts the very definition of Rambert, in either format command: a super-smart, super-spiky, super-sassy super celebration of fearless physicality, occasionally discomfiting but thoroughly invigorating, and always, always thought-provoking.
An evening in the company of Rambert can be described in many ways, and the dances interpreted to numerous levels of complexity. Whatever you take from the experience though, Rambert is a great British institution like no other.