Sacred Monsters, Sadler’s Wells: Sylvie Guillem and Akram Kham’s captivating final boogie

Ismene Brown is intrigued by an 18th century baby shower, spooked by a worldweary Dracula, bored by an overlong Rambert triple and disappointed by Len Goodman and Lucy Worsley

6 December 2014

9:00 AM

6 December 2014

9:00 AM

Sylvie Guillem and Akram Khan: Sacred Monsters

Sadler’s Wells

Daphnis et Églé; La naissance d’Osiris


Mark Bruce Company: Dracula


Rambert Dance

Touring into 2015

Phoenix Dance Theatre: mixed programme

Linbury Studio Theatre

I’m dashing between dance theatres at the moment and there’s just so much to tell you about. I could linger on Sacred Monsters, the captivating conversation-piece at Sadler’s Wells for Sylvie Guillem and Akram Khan — conversational being the word, for these genius dancers also talk to us, which is rather like Garbo laughing.

Guillem’s voice is a delightful discovery: it’s a soprano timbre, bubbling Frenchly with dropped aitches and baroque flexibility. She tells us cute stories about Charlie Brown’s sister ‘Sall-ee’ and her wish always to be ‘émerveillée’in life, while Khan confides his anxiety about balding. The 70 minutes go by like a jam session for two specialists of ideally complementary qualities and five musicians. Sylvie’s feet are phenomenally arched and of snake-like articulacy, his are flat and thick to slap the ground. They have splendid solos, she with her fastidious classical calligraphy etching wondrous lines in the air, he pouring out exquisite épaulement as he drums up volcanic spins from the earth.

In the climactic duet she hops on to his waist and falls backwards, and the fusion fantastically evokes the multi-armed goddess Kali, while Faheem Mazhar’s voice casts skeins of magical crooning around them. They get down off their pedestals for a final, unlikely boogie, like gawky Olive Oyl and Popeye. The evening’s charm has grown more poignant since its 2006 première, in the awareness that not only Guillem but also Khan will soon spin into the sunset.

I watched a bit of Lucy Worsley and Len Goodman’s giggly BBC4 programme about British popular dance, Dancing Cheek to Cheek, which is more Strictly Bumbling than enlightening. I thought they might test Ninette de Valois’s claim that it was Cromwell who ruined dancing for England, and elucidate the vigorous mysteries of Scottish dancing. But Len sniffed with a snobby flick of his kilt that reeling wasn’t ‘manly’, while Lucy mainly purred over the petticoats.

More intriguing was the Barbican evening with Les Arts Florissants in two Rameau dance-operas of the 1750s, Daphnis et Églé and La naissance d’Osiris, in which a toile de Jouy frolic of shepherds footed it featly in an 18th-century hommage showing that ballet’s springy footwork was already maturing 250 years ago.

Stager Sophie Daneman unified the two libretti into a pastoral play-within-a-play: two friends in a theatre troupe find amitié turning to amour, the resulting birth occasioning the second part’s florid visitations by approving gods to the baby shower. It worked dramatically, but I found the unisex palliness suspiciously bloodless, and Françoise Denieau’s choreography is academically founded on courtliness, with repetitious beats, skips and airy wrists. The stars were Alain Blanchot’s costumes, their tight lacings and exploding frills better expressing Rameau’s teasing rubati and rumpy-pumpy rhythms. And of course William Christie’s musicians. The scores overflow with amusingly distinctive farmyard sounds and weather, the flutes incited to all kinds of twittering by the compelling tenor Reinoud Van Mechelen in his aria ‘Oiseaux, chantez?’. It was unjust and untheatrical that the orchestra was often masked by the scenery.

Elsewhere, the touring companies have been unveiling novelties. The Bruce family are out in force: père Christopher with new repertoire for Phoenix, the Leeds company (visiting the Linbury Studio), and fils Mark touring his bravado Dracula (which I saw in Salisbury). In this biting little show, lit with gothic glee by Guy Hoare, Bruce junior rampages through Bram Stoker, spooking us with succulently bloodthirsty vampire brides and Jonathan Goddard’s riveting interpretation of Dracula as a world-weary lost soul.

By contrast, Bruce senior is supreme as a choreographer of domesticity, and his two miniatures for Phoenix couple the upbeat humour of factory workers in Shift with an anxious Ek-like family drama, Shadows, whose lamenting Arvo Pärt music, Fratres, enhances the Anne Frank tensions. Neither piece is choreographically ambitious, but Bruce’s material flourishes better on a larger scale with more individuality in its performers.

As for the rest, we’re still seeking an editor. My mean blue pencil would reduce Phoenix’s two other new works to their final three minutes: Ivgi & Greben’s Document to the urgent, lithe male duet (for Andreas Grimaldier and Sam Vaherlehto) after an eternity of generic torture-chamber twitching in the fashionable Dutch synth-angst school, and Darshan Singh Bhuller’s rambling Mapping to its entertaining coda with its Decouflé-like video trickery.

Rambert’s new triple bill detains us for two and a half hours, of which an hour’s choreography could go. That way we could enjoy Shobana Jeyasingh’s carefully made Terra Incognita in a better mood. Ashley Page’s cumbersome Subterrain has very few worthwhile minutes in its 40. Mark Baldwin ruins the colourful exertions of his The Strange Charm of Mother Nature — a quirky piece about quarks set to Stravinsky and Bach — through his unwarranted generosity to an additional composer.

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