National Youth Dance Company in “Madhead” by Botis Seva. Photograph by Tony Nandi

Emotional Landscapes

Dance on Screen: Sadler's Wells films

For any dance aficionado, Sadler’s Wells is a legendary location. From the first theatre built in the seventeenth century, to the present day, with the sixth theatre standing in the prestigious Clerkenwell area of London, countless numbers of dancers, actors, choreographers and directors have cut their teeth here. The series of short online films presented by Sadler’s Wells and currently available on YouTube are as eclectic as anything from the venue’s centuries of inspiration. They all show the diversity of performances as well as the progression of dance, in terms of both choreography and developmental film techniques on screen. Watching these very individual films on lockdown feels poignant, not just because of observing social distancing, but it also leaves the viewer wondering about the future of maintaining dance as an art form in such uncertain times, as theatres across the world remain closed.

French ballet legend Sylvie Guillem, here dancing with Russell Maliphant to his piece titled “Push,” brings a tenderness to work which could, with any other dancer, be considered cold due to the mathemetical, mechanical rhythm. It’s post-ballet dipped in postmodern steel, and the duo’s balance and poise swing between the sweetness of sentient warm bodies and more binary robotic gestures. A later collaboration for both Guillem and Maliphant as, respectively, dancer and choreographer, it is all about contrasting styles. This piece was something of a departure, marking a new direction for Guillem, as she moved from pure ballet into more contemporary territories in her work.

Sylvie Guillem and Russell Maliphant in “Push” by Maliphant. Photograph by Johan Persson

The film draws upon the sensuality of interlinked limbs, the erotic push and pull of woman and man, but also the quietude of Maliphant’s movement decisions. The camera leans in on close-ups of these two extraordinary dancers pushing their bodies to the absolute limits.

Confrontational, raw and sexually charged, “Ina (Light),” made in collaboration with Channel 4’s Random Acts, is by rising star Alesandra Seutin. Dancers Nandi Bhebhe, Kennedy Muntanga and Randolph Matthews, the latter whom also created the gorgeous score, fuses Afro-Futurism with contemporary and urban, with twisting, flexing bodies which feel at times like a complete unit. The whole seems to be mired in trust and unity, with the dancers working in tandem or individually, but never stronger than when merging together.

The two films documenting work from Botis Seva, Madhead and Reach (the latter again part of Channel Four’s TV strand Random Acts) are rooted in hip-hop dance, and thematically speak to the long shadows cast by violence. The former, filmed by Ben Williams, features young people trying to transcend their demons (war, gangs) with surging, violent movements as quick and precise as razor slashes. The second features Seva himself, twinning narratives of fatherhood and gang culture, and the dichotomy between the two. His hip-hop routines in the woods with other male dancers are a powerful juxtaposition of peer pressure and the endurance and sanctity of nature.

Akram Khan in “Xenos.” Photograph by Ryan Buchanan

It’s not the only film to take on such tough issues related to violence. Xen, an excerpt from Akram Khan’s “Xenos,” is stunningly filmed by Ben Marshall in blue and yellow colours, creating an eerie atmosphere, apposite for his interrogation of outsiderdom and bodily trauma. Khan’s prone body emerges from soil, fingers twitching, before creating a trancelike choreography fusing mimesis, Indian dance and contemporary phrasing. It is at once abstract, and direct, and packs a real punch at a time when the UK and US in particular are divided nations. It speaks to the duality of conflict and peace.

Finally, another highlight is Wilhelmina Ojanen’s beautiful, dreamlike A Whisper In The Order Of Things which digs deep into our environment and bodily relationships to it. It’s meditative, balletic and the dancers seem as elemental as their outdoor setting, at times almost indistinguishable from the trees, ground and leaves. The bodies of the dancers—Miia Mäkilä, Emilia Ahopelto, and Kardo Shiwan pile up, sway and grapple together in the soil, as athletic, lithe and resilient as the earth itself.

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