George Piper Dances, Pointless, Roundhouse, Friday 19 October, 2001
George Piper Dances had a rather odd mix of items on the programme for their inaugural run in London, with some experiments that didn’t quite come off – and some terrific performances of outstanding work as well. It wasn’t an evening which was easy to classify. The venue for a start: the Roundhouse is a cavernous, echoey and rather forbidding place, rather short on creature comforts. One might easily imagine it as a venue for an avant garde art installation rather than a ballet performance. In fact the space had been very well adapted for performance, with a large diamond shaped stage and good sight lines. The audience (it seemed to be sold out) was an intriguing mixture: some ballet regulars, some dancers, but a younger and much more eclectic crowd than you would see at Covent Garden or even at Sadlers Wells.
Nunn and Trevitt have clearly fallen for technology while filming their Ballet Boyz series, and seemed eager to capitalise on the audience they had found through it. Two huge screens at the back of the stage were used to screen assorted clips and intros to the pieces, and played a major part in Moments of Plastic Jubilation, where the choreography is credited to them both. Trevitt has produced an occasional piece before, but this is the first time I’ve seen Nunn credited as a dance maker. There were some interesting ideas in this - Trevitt filming the other dancers with a tiny camera so that we saw both the dancers and their massively enlarged images at the same time. But this has all been done very much more eloquently by Dutch National Ballet in van Manen’s Live. Here the technology, though fun and frantic, didn’t offer us any new insights about dance or the dancers. A cast of seven skittered about with great energy, the women looking rather glamorous in chic costumes from Neil Cunningham. Moments of Plastic Jubilation was full of energy but rather less than the sum of its dance, music and film parts. But all credit to them for trying their hands at something different. Trevitt’s short work Tangoid was a rather more straightforward, though not particularly striking piece for three dancers. Trevitt still looks to be learning his craft, but the tall and statuesque Justine Doswell looked intriguing.
Paul Lightfoot’s quirkily distinctive works have been brought to England a number of times by NDT: this programme featured an early work of his, Sigue, which wasn’t perhaps as strongly shaped as some of the other we have seen. This was a curiously down to earth view of relations between man and woman, tender but rueful and oddly practical as well – an odd word to use I suppose, but there was a briskness about it and a lack of sentimentality. Correctly this should be credited to Lightfoot and his wife, Sol Leon. It got great performances from Trevitt and Oxana Panchenko – at this close range the care of his partnering was very evident.
However, the standout elements of the programme were the works which opened and closed the evening, Forsythe’s Steptext, and Russell Maliphant’s Critical mass. It was worth the price of admission for these alone.
Forsythe’s Steptext is familiar from a number of performances by the Royal at Covent Garden, but seeing it at the Roundhouse was a new and potent experience. The audience is really close to the stage, and every movement, every balance is open to the same intense scrutiny as the dancers pay to each other. Forsythe’s pushing of classical poses to the limit is laid uncompromisingly bare, and yet also the underlying structure of the ballet also seems clearer – a happy result. Interesting to reflect that it was Forsythe who provided, in the end, the most classical piece on the programme, the nearest to ballet.
Steptext is a much more powerful and emotive work at this close range with Oxana Panchenko attracting and repelling her partners like some kind of energy field made flesh. London audiences are set to see much more of Forsythe’s work in the future, as Ballett Frankfurt will be at Sadler’s next month and the Royal are reviving two Forsythe pieces next year. This performance was an excellent advertisement for these, and the Royal will find it difficult to come up with a performance as concentrated and committed as this one. All the cast – Matthew Hart, Trevitt, Nunn and the steely Oxana Panchenko – looked as if they relished every move and were in complete command of the style. There was a cohesiveness about the dance that was very striking, they all looked as if they belonged together and had danced together for years. The sinewy Oxana Panchenko (previously with ENB, City Ballet of London and K Ballet) gave a blistering account of a particularly demanding role, and she was deservedly popular.
As regards Oxana, I was struck by the comments of people sitting behind me, who were not regular dance goers, just the sort of young audience that most companies want to attract. They thought she was far too skinny, worryingly so. I thought she looked a fairly average size for a female ballet dancer. Pulling in a new audience gives us different perspectives I suppose – it certainly made me think. Most balletomanes are fairly ruthless in their scrutiny of dancers physiques and the slightest variation in weight can draw comment. This was a sharp reminder that the elusive audience we would like to attract might not find that so desirable. (For the record, I think Panchenko looks in great shape and great form).
The final item featured Nunn and Trevitt in Russell Maliphant’s Critical Mass. It’s hard to believe that this wasn’t made for the pair of them, as it fits them as comfortably as old clothes. Maliphant originally made it in 1998. It’s an intense piece, which opens in a square of light, the restricted space echoed by a simple, limited set of moves, bending and shifting, transferring weight to each other, always in contact. Maliphant makes these very restrictions hypnotic, and plays with many subtle shifts of emphasis and timing. The work opens out from its initial frenetic bust into a more open and contemplative feel, and then pulls the dancers back together for a boxing match, then grappling together in a series of imaginative lifts. I’d only seen Maliphant’s work on TV before, again in a male duet, but I would like to see much more. He is clearly a real craftsman, and this is a beautifully made and eloquent work.
For its success, the dancers need something like telepathy – complete trust and coordination and empathy with each others every mood. Physically, this must be an immensely draining work. Nunn and Trevitt were completely confident of each other’s movement and gave stunning performances which got a passionate reception. Great to see them back. They return to London again in early December, at the QEH, with Steptext, Critical Mass and a new work by Charles Linehan.