REVIEW: UNKNOWN PLEASURES: CNN – Ballet De Lorraine (Sadlers Wells) ★★★

unknown-pleasuresFor anyone who has been waiting for a fairer and more realistic representation of female choreographers, I have good news and bad news: First: this Dance Umbrella performance comprises five pieces created by one man and four (four!) women. However they are all anonymous. Maybe that’s some sort of progress.

The intention is admirable; we’re to do away with our preconceptions surrounding “names” and ages and just enjoy the work. Lighting, music, costumes and set design remain similarly uncredited; only the twenty dancers are listed in the programme.

We kick off with dancers performing repetitive gestures behind a transparent screen of coloured acetate. Dancers emerge and sing (I thought I made out Japanese, but I can’t be sure) and move singly or in pairs. This theme ties together the whole performance, dancers moving and singing, linking other pieces together, the works bleeding into one another as some remain on stage while a new piece starts.

It was hard not to be reminded of choreographers all the same. My favourite had the stamp of Anne Teresa Keersmaeker all over it. Dancers performed relatively simple footwork and moved in circles, lines, emerging and re-emerging in constantly changing patterns. The huge challenge for them was keeping the shapes and moving evenly together. It’s very evident that a smaller dancer needs to move more quickly and a taller performer will have to slow down and rein in long limbs. There were only a couple of moments when one person was not moving smoothly with the others. There would have been an enormous amount of counting involved and a lot of rehearsal, not to mention skilful spotting. Their T shirts had letters on the back and front which eventually spelled out: “The world is burning but I keep on turning”. It was beautiful and I could have watched for hours.

The next piece was a series of duets for six dancers, relationships changing as they swapped partners. It was unbeautiful, skilfully executed with some technically impressive dancing but nothing we haven’t seen before.

The penultimate piece was initially performed in silence, difficult for the performers if they can’t see each other all the time and it did feel there was a sense again of timing being slightly off with at least one of the dancers. It was reminiscent of Cunningham, all long lines, tilts and shifts in direction but also felt like an endless adage: beautiful but essentially samey.

The last work was cheeky, silly and almost cartoon-like. Up to this point, music was restrained, simple and perfectly complemented the dancing but in this piece Ravel’s Bolero (which can only ever be associated with that ice dance for many British people) took a starring role. The work annoyed me initially. The dancers moved from one side of the stage to the other in straight lines in a style I’d describe as “messing about”, hopping, walking like an Egyptian, crashing into each other with perfect skill and execution but it felt like the kind of thing dancers do when they want to let off steam and not “be classical”. However, the work won me over when a duet and the meaning emerged; clearly this was all about lust and what to do with it. The silliness became charming as one dancer invited his partner into a little space he marked out with tape, sweetly “opening” the door for her while the rest of the performers sort of throbbed with anticipation en masse. It all reminded me of NDT2. They conveyed a love of dancing, music and life which was tremendous fun to watch.

The lighting was subtle and worked perfectly with each piece. It was good to see the entire stage exposed at times, reminding us we were there to see new work, stripped bare of assumptions. Costumes again were perfect, not at all detracting from the choreography. It was a lovely touch to see the dancers take their curtain call in their own clothes, as if to remind us that they were individuals. For me they were the best thing about the performance as they inhabited such a variety of roles so completely and with enormous skill.

Reviewed by Alison Bray
Photo: Arno Paul