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Contrasting Paths

Few dance companies would dare to put such disparate pieces together. But such is the audacious, experimental spirit of Scottish Ballet. Tonight's works couldn't be more different in tone, texture, theme, and genre, but both have their own charms.It's an unlikely but inspired pairing, showcasing the sheer diversity of what the ensemble can do.

Performance

Scottish Ballet: “Twice-Born”

Place

Theatre Royal, Glasgow, Scotland, UK, September 21, 2023

Words

Lorna Irvine

Rishan Benjamin in Dickson Mbi's “Twice-Born.” Photograph by Andy Ross

Opener “Schachmatt,” choreographed by Barcelona/Netherlands trained Cayetano Soto,  is translated as “checkmate” and is a cuckoo bananas slice of kitsch. This UK premiere is surely one of the campest things ever brought to stage. The ensemble do an exacting, precise, acrobatic series of canters, preening, strutting and shimmying across a giant chess board (also designed by Soto) to a retro soundtrack of lounge and Latin jazz. Oh, yes, there's a shot of Fosse, a soupcon of Robbins, but it's updated, zesty homage as much as knowing pastiche. Think the European swing of Michel Legrand and Monna Bell, and add nutty equestrian style.  

At various points, there are movements reminiscent of Matthew Bourne's Swank Bar scene from “Swan Lake,” but that's perhaps inevitable, given it mines the shimmy shake sixties, but it's arguably even more suggestive.  This is, to all intents and purposes, a battle between women and men, with twitchy fingers fluttering mothlike under groins, bump 'n' grind sauciness, and rubbing that sweet spot between froth and fetish.It's naughty and relentless, absolutely shameless.

Rishan Benjamin in Cayetano Soto's “Schachmatt.” Photograph by Andy Ross

The world premiere of London-based wunderkind Dickson Mbi's glorious “Twice-Born” is such a shattering contrast, it's like feeling somewhat punch-drunk. It's immense, intense and multilayered. A theatrical dance where lines are blurred between states of being. As the title suggests, two goddesses (the imperious, statuesque Marge Hendrick and petite firecracker Rishan Benjamin) are reborn, from vulnerable, childlike states into warrior women. The storytelling is key, with use of movement vocabulary every bit as essential as the visual metaphors threaded through the narrative.

Hendrick is the first to transform. A post-apocalyptic setting (or is it a primordial one?) is where the ensemble emerge from, crawling as . . . something animal, not quite human, not as babies. A rocky, bleak landscape where women take the lead in terms of social interaction and stratification. Hierarchical battles are drawn, with Mbi's epic, thunderous soundtrack complementing the muscularity of his choreography. When groups are formed, they pulse together like a heart, each dancer the embodiment of the life force.It's not difficult to read into the symbolism: climate change; wars, the loss of community and trying to gain back trust and a sense of self when all seems desolate.

Jerome Anthony Barnes and Marge Hendrick in Dickson Mbi's “Twice-Born.” Photograph by Andy Ross

It feels like the women represent some kind of a future matriarchy, with an ever shifting lyrical palette. Yet it's hard won. Women are pulled, in one uncomfortable scene,around the floor, until they are uptight and, finding a kind of personal autonomy, join the others with heads held high. This feels like a bold statement.

The roots of Mbi's initial love of hip hop culture, particularly popping, are alluded to, as are jazz elements, with dynamic, UV-lit fingertips which become clawlike as pincers in this fight for survival. And when it's Benjamin's turn to be revived and reborn, she is literally airborne, spinning, hoisted up into the gods. Watching Hendrick and Benjamin transform feels like the epitome of feminine empowerment.

Black and white bodies are thus united in this ambitious, often fierce and moving meditation on the bonds of universality. It's obviously an intensely personal work for Mbi, born in Cameroon but now living in London, to create a humane and defiant message through dance's shapeshiftng spaces . His music is kickass too, a timeless mash-up of sweeping strings, Afrofuturism, chants, roars and drones. A potent, heady production for tough times.

At Theatre Royal until 23rd Sept,then His Majesty's Theatre in Aberdeen on 6th October and Festival Theatre in Edinburgh on 20-21at October

www.scottishballet.co.uk

Lorna Irvine


Based in Glasgow, Lorna was delightfully corrupted by the work of Michael Clark in her early teens, and has never looked back. Passionate about dance, music, and theatre she writes regularly for the List, Across the Arts and Exeunt. She also wrote on dance, drama and whatever particular obsession she had that week for the Shimmy, the Skinny and TLG and has contributed to Mslexia, TYCI and the Vile Blog.

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