Rambert’s newest bill promises a lot of excitement: it kicks off with the London debut of Alexander Whitley’s 2015 work “Frames,” then moves on to a revival of Lucinda Childs’ simple but celebrated “Four Elements,” commissioned in 1990. The headline act is a world premiere from artistic director Mark Baldwin that features 20 dancers swishing to the on-stage syncopations of a 32-piece brass band, the musicians’ gleaming instruments shielded from the action by perspex armoury and art deco-inspired scaffolding.
It’s a striking set-up, but does it deliver? Yes and no. The programme offers a terrific taste of Rambert’s versatility: the three pieces vary dramatically in tone and texture, and the dancers happily rise to their shifting demands, with particularly luminous performances from Dane Hurst, Simone Damberg Würtz, Miguel Altunaga and Luke Ahmet. But there’s a discernible gulf between Childs’ tightly bound minimalist work and the new pieces, both of which are ambitious but somewhat rudderless. The inconsistency is distracting and left me focusing what could have been rather than what was.
Whitley’s “Frames” is a dance about making a dance. The meta piece—which begins with a rousing, deliciously agile solo by Hurst—sees a dozen performers craft and dismantle elaborate structures using thin metal rods, their actions echoing those of a choreographer trying out different permutations to see which ones stick. Whitley’s choreographic creativity shines here: the structures themselves aren’t mind-blowing, but the dancers’ interactions with the rods are truly inventive. There’s spinning, thrusting, tilting, grasping, all of which feel both fresh and justified; the props command attention rather than distract. There’s a lot to love about the grouping too, which frequently casts the dancers on their own or in small pairings, lending an air of industry to their proceedings. However, the work’s fussy, drawn-out ending goes some way towards undoing its own virtues. Just when you think it’s winding down, it roars back up again, muddling the flow and diluting the climax. A tighter finale and this could be a winner.
By contrast, Childs’ “Four Elements” feels neat and perfectly timed. It helps that its four movements—you guessed it: “Water,” “Earth,” “Air” and “Fire”—are evenly spaced, effectively signposting its progress. Each features choreography tailored to its theme, though this is less prescriptive than it sounds—“Air,” for example, isn’t just flying leaps; the segment also features a lot of suspended limbs and swift changes of direction, the dancers propelled by invisible gusts of wind. Across the ballet are classical basics put to excellent use: arabesques, sissones, assemblés. These bedrocks anchor the work and lull the viewer, as do the repetitive phrasing and pared-back execution.
I was immediately enthralled by the opening scene in Baldwin’s “Dark Arteries.” Arms angled and chins jutting, ten women in floor-length dresses march purposefully, their single-file line calling to mind the breadline in Martha Graham’s 1936 work “Steps in the Street.” Like “Steps,” Baldwin’s work draws upon themes of social unrest, though its criticism is less obvious than Graham’s clear-cut attack on postwar devastation. The title comes from a line in a 1937 poem about coal mining in Wales, but there are allusions to the miners’ strike of 1984-85 too, and these coupled with the programme notes’ reference to the UK’s recent general election make it unclear what era the piece harks to, if any. The Tredegar Town Band, majestic though it appears with the musicians assembled in tiers and framed by the dancers (who also include ten men), jumbles things a little further: its dark, rumbling score overwhelms the dancing at times, particularly in the middle section, when heavy percussion and volatile choreography compete for attention.
Still, there’s much to praise about “Dark Arteries,” including the intense emotions it inspires. The early scenes invoke calm and solidarity, while the climax is a flurry of desperation matched with chaotic formations, flashing lights and combative partnering. The final section, a dreamy epilogue of sorts, is less focused: here, dancers in bright unitards perform an adagio that’s pretty enough but reveals little. Ultimately, the drama is there; it just needs a bit more direction.