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Flash Review 1, 4-28: When 'Push' Comes to Wells
Russell Maliphant, Stealth Choreographer

By Josephine Leask
Copyright 2006 Josephine Leask

LONDON -- While the Russell Maliphant Company has performed in many venues all over London, it had not played the glamorous venue of Sadler's Wells theater until April 6, a performance which revealed another new phase for the troupe, in the recent addition of six impressive international dancers.

Maliphant is one of the most modest choreographers in the dance business, someone who works quietly and stealthily in the background for long periods of time before emerging with new work that touches and inspires. Having struggled for years as an independent artist exploring what really interested him -- movement and collaborations with the lighting designer Michael Hulls and composers such as Andrew Cowton -- he finally carved out his own unique aesthetic. In recent years this has put him in the limelight not only in Britain but also internationally. Highly acclaimed as both performer and choreographer by contemporary dance audiences, Maliphant was recently celebrated by the ballet world for his work with the ballet diva Sylvie Guillem in their duet "Push" from the evening-length work of the same name.

However, it was satisfying to see Maliphant's own company, which understands his work better than anyone, performing his material on a big stage. The program consisted of three works, "New Solo," for the one male in the company, Alexander Varona; "Transmission," for five women; and a reworking of the "Push" duet for company members Varona and Julie Guibert.

Hulls and Maliphant have worked together for several years, exploring how light interacts with movement. The result of their collaboration is lighting that tends to be very shadowy but also strongly sculptural as it bathes the moving body in a semi-light. In "New Solo," Varona's tall muscular frame is subtly highlighted. In the beginning, as the unfurls his spine like a cat stretching, the light gently caresses each vertebrae and then catches the muscle and bone. With such atmospherically evocative lighting a gentle and warm space is created, suitable for Varona, who is both velvety and muscular. The plunges, back flips and handstands he performs look so effortless. He seems to surrender to the movement like a yogi, but still maintains a commanding and sensuous presence. Varona is brilliant at interpreting Maliphant's choreography, which draws on the qualities found within the martial arts, with a combination of strength and calm.

In complete contrast to "New Solo" is the edgier group piece "Transmission," which begins in almost total darkness, with only parts of the dancers' hands lit as they swirl and spiral through the light. This enigmatic lighting effect makes the performers look like they are juggling fireflies. The light gradually lengthens to reveal limbs, but we still don't see the dancers clearly. That comes in the next section, when the five women erupt on stage in a series of fast yet very delicate gravity-defying movements. The dancers are strong yet sinewy but also smooth in their execution of movements in solos, duets, trios and groups. Their contact is intimate and supportive. In one solo the dancer is accompanied by her shadow, which appears huge on the backdrop, making her seem strangely alone on stage.

While the dancers fill the large stage with their confident physicality, because they are only partially visible much of the time, they are sometimes dwarfed by the space. I also start to crave the intimacy of a smaller theater, as even though much of Maliphant's work does look stunning in a bigger theater, some of its subtleties are nevertheless lost.

In Varona and Guibert's interpretation of the "Push" duet, they dance like finely tuned machines, sharing the workload symbiotically. Varona appears carrying Guibert, who sits proudly astride his shoulders like a Chinese warrior going into battle, alert yet serene. As she adjusts her position so that her body drapes over his, there is also something powerfully reminiscent of the crucifix, augmented by the pure plaintive music and the colder blue lighting. When Guibert finally comes down from her 'mountain,' she and her partner enact a series of leans and supports, pushing and pulling each other with incredible suppleness and fluidity. The duet is a conversation between two people which is quietly emotional, compassionate yet full of tension; they prowl 'round each other, pausing intermittently to create a series of striking sculptural designs. While the weight bearing for much of the duet is shared, ultimately it is the man who is cast in the main supportive role and at times looks burdened by the body of the woman. I can't help thinking that "Push" was originally designed to show Guillem off at her best, so that the man had to play second fiddle.

Sylvie Guillem and Russell Maliphant give Maliphant's evening-length "Push" its French premiere July 12-13 at the festival Vaison Danses in Vaison la Romaine, in the haut Vaucluse (Provence Alpes-Cote d'Azur).


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