Cullberg Ballet
Jefta van Dinther's “The Plateau Effect.” Photograph by Urban Jörén

Sensory Shock

Cullberg Ballet's “Plateau Effect”

Cullberg Ballet: “Plateau Effect”
Sadler’s Wells, London, UK, November 13 & 14, 2014
Sara Veale

The term ‘plateau effect’ describes the phenomenon of diminishing returns—that is, the reduced effectiveness over time of a once effective measure. Jefta van Dinther’s production by the same name does just that, putting forward a series of bold scenes, each of which ploughs ahead at a high-octane pace until the wow factor wears off and the audience adjusts to the sensory shock (think pulsing music, flashing lights, shuddering bodies). Van Dinther has a knack for detecting the very moment viewers have acclimatised, and it’s then that he throws another jolt into the mix, making for some powerful transitions. The one-act piece is loud and stimulating, and while the conceptual format can make it difficult at times to tell where it’s heading, the journey is certainly a fun one.

“Plateau Effect” toes the line between dance and performance art: singing and shouting feature alongside sprinting and shaking, and simple steps jostle for position with erratic formations. There’s a distinct lack of discernible choreography beyond the dancers’ manoeuvring of a large billowy sheet, which they wrestle and contort throughout, hurried along by a thudding techno beat. In fact, the majority of their movement is improvisational and concomitant to this central action, itself a loosely devised routine. Coupled with the pedestrian overtones of their body language, this unregimented set-up prompts the fundamental question of just what elevates a certain movement to dance. Do incidental, everyday motions count?

The show offers more questions than answers and can come off a little piecemeal in this respect. Still, the nine performers are unquestionably talented, and their energy is compelling. Much of the movement requires an outward display of muscle and vigour, and despite their classical training—or perhaps because of it—the dancers take to van Dinther’s sinewy vision with ease. Their deft handling of the sheet is particularly impressive: between them they manage to wrangle the cumbersome garment into all sorts of shapes, from a fixed scaffold to an undulating wave.

It’s the opening and closing segments of “Plateau Effect” that best embody its central conceit. In the former, the cast line up in front of the sheet, which starts out suspended from the ceiling like a scrim, and lose themselves to the fabric as it whips itself around them, engulfing them one by one. By the time the last dancer succumbs to the wave, its force has been expounded so vehemently that a sense of inevitability replaces the initial suspense.

Meanwhile, the final portion of the show sees the dancers erect a complex tent out of the sheet, using ropes to tie portions of it to the back wall, wings and rafters. Again the phrase throbs with intensity so steadily that the explosion of purple flashes, blackouts and manic convulsions eventually ceases to feel like a sensory overload. The piece does dither on a few self-important touches at this point—for example, the dancers audibly murmuring to themselves—but overblown this isn’t.