Manchester Theatre Awards

> Independent informed reviews by the region’s most experienced critics

Ghost Dances

Kim Brandstrup, Andonis Foniadakis, Christopher Bruce
The Lowry
28 September 2017 to 30 September 2017

If Rambert is not in a golden era now, then I don’t know what a golden era is.

The UK’s premier contemporary dance company has upped its game under Mark Baldwin to the point where it really has no competitors. On this tour it’s putting as large a company on stage as some neo-classical ballets can muster (or more), with a decent sized orchestra playing live music in the pit throughout its programmes, and the quality of what it’s doing is extraordinary.

And last night we had a world premiere in Salford. The newest item in the company’s repertory is called Symbiosis, its music composed by Ilan Eshkeri and its dance by Andonis Foniadakis.

What’s it about? Well, life in our modern cities, apparently – Eshkeri gives four titles to his pieces which talk about individual spirituality in a hectic and violent society, the heart of creation and ‘A Kind of Prayer’. Fioniadakis and he worked together to develop their ideas, so the dance seems to tell a kind of story, or at least show a series of mobile tableaux (‘a poetic landscape’ is his description).

It’s a hugely appealing work, to me at any rate (sadly, no images of it available yet), and I think one the company will want to keep performing for some time to come. For one thing, it employs 18 of its dancers to the full, with a great deal of ensemble work plus some eloquent sections for two, three or a few more soloists. For another, the score is in an attractive, tonal, post-minimalist style, effectively written for 13 orchestral musicians and a synthesizer player, with rhythmic echoes almost of The Rite of Spring at one point (an urban jungle, I guess), while some of the choreography itself conjures images not a million miles from that scenario. The lighting (Sakis Birbilis) is vivid without overdoing its role.

And the piece is fundamentally optimistic. To a lyrical, hymn-like tune, the final section affirms humanity and relationships in the midst of violence and heartlessness.

That was only one third of the riches on offer in this performance. The sheer skill of Rambert’s performers is unbelievable – after all, in contemporary dance every movement has to be memorised and perfected. You can’t fall back on the standard steps of the classical tradition (though Rambert’s dancers have classical expertise behind them, too, and it always shows).

Transfigured Night, a two-year-old interpretation by Kim Brandstrup of Schoenberg’s iconic and intimate tone poem, Verklärte Nacht, began the evening. Again it used the resources of the whole company, though two couples were in the foreground, with silhouetted and varying echoes of their movements often appearing alongside the protagonists. This one really does tell a story – not precisely that of the poem which originally inspired the music, but essentially of the same situation: a loving couple face the reality of betrayal and the anguish of dealing with its emotions, looking back (they see their former selves like Scrooge revisiting his Christmas Past) and seeking a kind of renewal.

It’s a lovely piece – Miguel Altunaga and Simone Damberg Würtz taking the leading roles – and the score was beautifully played by the Rambert musicians, under Paul Hoskins’ direction.

The last one was an old favourite, which I last saw here in 2000, and the theme piece for the evening: Christopher Bruce’s Ghost Dances, from 1981. With its glorious pipe-and-strumming evocation of Chilean popular music, today it projects an innocence and folksy delight in simple movement that seems to come from another world. But even in 1981 the ghosts were real (Pinochet’s time), and this work’s optimism has always had a thoughtful, darker side, too.

Reviewer: Robert Beale


Comment by Alan Hulme

I went to Friday's matinee, aimed very largely at a schools audience, leaving out Symbiosis and featuring instead a demonstration of what happens in the dancers everyday warm up class. Interesting certainly and definitely a good idea for this audience, though from what Robert says I've obviously missed a highlight of the evening programme.

Agree with Robert entirely re Rambert's current standards, they are as high as they've ever been while I've been watching them (back, mostly, to their RNCM visits in the 1970/80s) and the live orchestra makes a massive difference, especially when it is as good as this.

It is the score of course with Ghost Dances, that and the images of the ghosts themselves, that have stuck in the mind over the years - I first saw it in back in 1981 - but Bruce's choreography, seeing it again now after several years, stands as a poignant blend of realism and ballectic expression, tragedy and loss, in which a wave of the hand dismisses the essence of a person's life.

It was made at the request of the Chilean Human Rights Committee to help tell the world about the 35,000 people murdered - and many more imprisoned and tortured - by the Pinochet regime. So, with its pan pipes and folk tunes, it is very much of its time and place and can't quite now be related properly to whatever other atrocities continue to blight civilization.

So it's not the same now as then, it doesn't prompt the anguish and anger it once did but it nevertheless remains a masterpiece of modern dance. Performed again now by a stellar dance company right at the top of their game.

Comment by Carmel Thomason

I agree - this is a terrific triple-bill. I saw the same performance as Bob on Thursday and it was truly extraordinary - in the use of the company's vast talent and in the emotions this evoked. To produce dance of this quality and impact is incredibly skilled, but the company make it look effortless. I can't recommend it highly enough.