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Flash Review 1, 12-1: Upstairs, Downstairs
Rambert, Dressed Up by Armitage, Hyped Up by McGregor, and Whirled About by de Frutos

By Josephine Leask
Copyright 2003 Josephine Leask

LONDON -- Rambert Dance Company, fresh and feisty with new dancers and newish artistic director Mark Baldwin, hit town last week with a program which included two local premieres, Karole Armitage's "Living Toys" and Javier de Frutos's "Elsa Canasta." The company, which predominantly tours outside of London, performed at Sadler's Wells midway through its current tour and attracted a wildly enthusiastic young audience. Also showing were two short works by company member and Rambert School graduate Glenn Wilkinson and Wayne McGregor's "PreSentient." Central to most of the work was unusual and eclectic music played live by London Musici, Rambert's associate orchestra.

Armitage's "Living Dolls" was inspired by the music of the same name by British composer Thomas Ades, comprised of a huge collage of sounds, made from everything from gongs to hands clapping, played by 14 musicians. The choreography, which uses 22 dancers and is at its most impressive when all are onstage at once, mirrors the turbulent and quirky moods within the score. Peter Speliopoulos's costumes, a strange concoction of underwear which includes bandages worn on the arms and legs, transform the dancers into fetishized dolls and give the whole work a sinister edge. But however creepy the dancers look, the costumes are effective in displaying the very show-off, virtuosic choreography.

On a showy level, McGregor's "PreSentient" scored pretty high as well. The choreography, a complex arrangement of trios, quartets and duos performed at high speed, at times resembles audience-wowing circus tricks, especially when coupled with over-dramatic lighting changes. In spite of the somewhat superficial movement, there are gripping moments, and the extremely demanding choreography was superbly executed by the dancers.

McGregor has a very distinctive android-like performance style which looks watered down on other bodies, and "PreSentient" had a far softer, more human quality than much of his previous work, even though it contained a violent physicality. With the dancers clad in short droopy purple tunics, the piece took on a far more sentimental look than the cold but riveting alien world that McGregor usually creates with his own company, Random Dance. The costumes were positively romantic compared to those in previous work and some of the slower partner work almost verged on the sentimental.

Part of the music was Steve Reich's "Triple Quartet," and McGregor wrote in the program notes that he was "attracted by the punishing and driven wall of sound that relentlessly attacks the atmosphere," and tried to match this in his choreography "through a grammar and syntax of violent physicality." McGregor is one of the most popular choreographers around at the moment and has some great ideas, but for me this piece was just too hyped.

It was de Frutos's Elsa Canasta, inspired by the moody music of Cole Porter, that stole the evening. De Frutos brings back everything that we've forgotten about in dance, like personality, humour, passion and evocation, and although he is London-based his work is not seen nearly enough here.

The set design is an elegant sweeping staircase on which most of the danced action takes place. "Elsa Canasta" is a series of exits and entrances up and down the staircase which stands as a metaphor for possibility at a social gathering. It marks the various stages of an evening of social interaction, from crisp flirtations at the beginning to wine-drenched outpourings of lust at the end. An extra layer of sophistication is added to the performance by the presence of Melanie Marshall, who sings several Cole Porter numbers in her rich velvety voice, also on the staircase.

A pair of male lovers enact their amorous intentions sitting midway up the staircase and after that, various groupings of dancers explore their own unique relationships of sulky tiffs, cheeky games, violent struggles. The lucky partners make it all the way upstairs, beckoned by a quick suggestive nod of the head by their lovers. The not-so-lucky remain at the bottom. Each of the characters has his or her own agenda and own idiosyncratic way of expressing it, such as the man-eating woman who gropes her partner until he can stand it no more. Or a neurotic who repeatedly hurls herself off the staircase, testing the nerves of her partner, and a wild trio who recklessly tumble from step to step, each competing for attention.

Watching "Elsa Canasta" is like reading a really juicy gossip column in an upmarket magazine. De Frutos's vocabulary, a slick combination of gesture, luscious dance steps and theatrical repetition flavored with huge intensity, draws us in to what each dancer has to say. He also vividly interprets the dramatic and nostalgic nature of Porter's sung and orchestral music, thus making it timeless and appealing to both older and younger generations of the audience.

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