I recently read an article on a contemporary dance forum which argued that narrative dance (that which seeks to tell a story through music and movement) has had its day, and that the future belongs entirely to abstract choreography. I was not persuaded. Why settle for one or the other when we can have both, or indeed, wonderful hybrids of the two (like Seeta Patel’s recent reimagining of the Rite of Spring)?
That said, the work of Russell Maliphant has always made a powerful case for the abstract. With no story to tell, abstract choreography needs to capture the eye and trust that the mind, and even the heart, will follow. Maliphant is good at this. Very good. ‘Broken Fall’, a 2003 piece created with for Sylvie Guillem and the BalletBoyz, was a breathtaking blend of dance and daredevil athleticism.
In contrast, the emotional impact of this evening’s offering, ‘Silent Lines’, is calming rather than thrilling, which in itself makes it something of a bold piece.
Subdued, dappled lighting plays across the bodies of the five dancers, to a soundtrack of a slow, monotonous drone. Movement, as it will be for the duration of the piece, is mellifluous, slowed, graceful and deliberate. The effect is as if watching an underwater contemporary ballet – one is drawn in and soothed, almost a meditation for the eye.
From the opening pas de cinq, we move into other configurations; pas de deux, solos, occasional threes and twos. The music gains rhythm and a little tempo. From the floor, projections of concentric circles, often framing and centering the movement, pulse outwards or inwards (creating a fascinating optical illusion of the dancers growing or shrinking, according to the flow of the pulse).
The circle is the dominant motif of the choreography, from the ring-a-roses patterns of the opening, to the ‘slowed motion’ of individuals. Just like the soundtrack, the choreography samples – deliberately, explicitly – not just from the canon of dance, but from other physical art forms. Maliphant references Capoeira, the Brazilian martial art (highly apt, since the plantation slaves who developed it concealed its true purpose by disguising it as a form of dance). Elsewhere, there are hints of the dervish or the spinning Kathak dancer (though always at this gentle, considered pace).
Maliphant eschews the dazzling athleticism of earlier work. ‘Silent Lines’ is a reflective study of the human body in motion, with few lifts or leaps in evidence. Indeed, there is a notable paucity of physical contact, even in the pas de deux. At one point, the music seems to sample the Gotan Project and one cannot help but yearn for some closer engagement between the two men on stage. (My imagination turned in vain to that marvellous, man-to-man, tango in Carlos Saura’s movie). Silently, separately, stage left and right, the dancers shadow each other’s movement, but hold their lines. And perhaps that is the point – communication but also isolation. Only at the opening and finale is there a sense of human connectedness.
Stevie Stewart’s costumes are simple, the clean lines and absence of colour complementing the rather beautiful and intriguing lighting design (by Maliphant and Panagiotis Tomaros – Tomaros also designed the video projections).
At the risk of sounding like Emperor Joseph II (who infamously accused Mozart of writing “too many notes”) I will say ‘Silent Lines’ felt about 10 minutes too long. The magical trance into which it had lured me could not quite hold me to the end. Still, quite a treat.★ ★ ★ ★