The American choreographer Pam Tanowitz says she dances along the edge of history. Her delicate, thoughtful choreography fits into the places that other choreographers have left empty. She is a student of dance as well as a practitioner, someone who is always conscious of the people who forged a path before her. So there could be no better programme for her first piece of work commissioned by a British company – in this case, the Royal Ballet – than one that shows her in the light of both Merce Cunningham and Frederick Ashton.
The pressure must have been enormous, taking her place in so distinguished a line, but her 20-minute Everyone Keeps Me rose with astonishing calm beauty to the challenge. Set to Ted Hearne’s emotional string quartet Exposure, it brings its nine dancers on to the stage in silence, their arms linked, their legs making a delicate crisscross of movement, like figures running around a Greek vase.
As the music starts, the dancers break away and James Hay and Anna Rose O’Sullivan begin a duet that is both intimate and involving and also strangely distant; they face each other, mirroring one another’s movements, both elegant and clear but also disturbed by the unexpected – a push under an arm, little hops, skips and twists of the feet.
This is characteristic of all the movement that follows – solos, duets, deliberately misaligned groups. Its inventiveness constantly surprises. Luca Acri crosses the stage, rolling his shoulders; Hannah Grennell pushes her head into Aiden O’Brien’s shoulder as they both unfold their legs into arabesques, like a see-saw as he walks backwards; Beatriz Stix-Brunell is carried aloft, her bent arms frozen like a doll’s.
The dancers – all superb – look at one another as they dance and seem to reveal their personalities; sometimes the women lie on the floor, propping their heads on one elbow, watching all that unfolds with bold but uncommitted curiosity. The ending is sublime: a long, complex, twisting solo for Calvin Richardson, full of jumps and sudden stops, matched by music that uses the bows as a percussive scrape (played from the side of the stage). Then four of the women enter and Fumi Kaneko flings herself into a rapid spin before they all take one another’s hands, linked in lovely contemplation. The first group forms again and they slowly walk around, before lying on the stage.
Bathed in Clifton Taylor’s luscious lights, which paint the stage with rectangles of pure colour and costumed by Fay Fullerton in soft-shaded chiffon (blush, turquoise, mauve, yellow, pink), Everyone Keeps Me builds its own self-enclosed world, suggestive of things that you can’t quite grasp. Like a lot of Tanowitz’s choreography, it sets off ripples of memory – it recalls at various moments Cunningham, Martha Graham and Jerome Robbins’s Dances at a Gathering – but is uniquely and utterly itself. She has a great gift.
Earlier in this triple bill, programmed in honour of Merce Cunningham’s centenary, we saw her lineage. Matthew Ball, Francesca Hayward and Mayara Magri became the first Royal Ballet dancers ever to perform Cunningham’s pioneering work at the ROH, and brought to his lively Cross Currents (premiered in London in 1964) a brisk vivacity, expressionless but thrilling in the twists and tilts of the choreography, its fierce jumps, its sense of being totally self-contained, exploring the reaches of movement as Conlon Nancarrow’s discordant difficult score did its own thing alongside.
When Frederick Ashton saw Cunningham’s work he responded to its poetry; and his Monotones II has the same interest in seeing a body in space, making sophisticated shapes and patterns out of its three white-clad dancers (Melissa Hamilton, Reece Clarke, Nicol Edmonds). But Ashton is supremely responsive to Satie’s mournful Gymnopédies; Cunningham’s separation of music from dance has had very few followers.
Of Danse Élargie, the less said the better. This biennial competition showcase, devised by choreographer Boris Charmatz and director Emmanuel Demarcy-Mota, is designed to let young talent have its head and should be thrilling. In fact, it’s depressing.
Each gets 10 minutes to show what they can do and there is some promise on display, but an awful lot of sloppy thinking and generic movement too. The second half featured nudity, which is always a bad sign, and the nadir was a piece by Pietro Marullo that contained nudity and a giant black pillow that floated around the stage. The highlight was the competition winner Kwame Asafo-Adjei, who used the language of hip-hop in new conversational ways in a dramatic dialogue about family honour. Also appealing were the all-female Queen Blood, choreographed by Ousmane Sy, and the energetic To Da Bone featuring (La) Horde, whose fierce, stamina-sapping, jumpstyle provided a rousing conclusion to a dark night.
Star ratings (out of five)
Cross Currents/Monotones II/Everyone Keeps Me ★★★★★
Danse Élargie ★★