Shostakovich Trilogy (2014)

Alexei Ratmansky is a choreographer in thrall to classical ballet, but he reflects imaginatively on the form and on his own Russian heritage. His Shostakovich Trilogy dances in tandem with a composer for whom Ratmansky feels deep affinity and it’s a consummate achievement, packing in emotive biography, arch humour, audacious virtuosity, claustrophobic fear and stirring displays of power and unity. The moods shift as frequently as the attitudes of the Soviet censors who dogged Shostakovich’s career. A fitting tribute to a great composer. LW Read the interview


Play Without Words (2002)

Matthew Bourne will forever be identified with his clever reworkings of blockbuster ballets (Swan Lake, Cinderella, Nutcracker), but the real gem of the last two decades is a piece that’s far from the land of fairytales. Set in swinging 60s London, Play Without Words is based loosely on Joseph Losey’s 1963 film The Servant, and it’s a tightly choreographed, seductive piece of dance-theatre, playing with power dynamics and choreographic structure to slick, sizzling effect. LW Read the review


TooMortal (2012)

Made for historic churches, Shobana Jeyasingh’s TooMortal places the audience at the altar, six female dancers half hidden in the pews, and fills the nave with dissonant chimes, tenebrous voices and murky light. The action is spare, but its images loom large: pews as cradles or coffins, the aisle as abyss, elementally evoking the tribulations, desolations and consolations of life’s journey. This is a small, seemingly simple work that holds big ideas. SR Read the review


Rain (2001)

The minimalist composer Steve Reich has been a longtime muse for Belgian choreographer Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker, and she immersed herself in his Music for 18 Musicians to make this shimmering dance. De Keersmaeker’s choreography is meticulously precise but the result looks like joyful, carefree abandon, the dancers bounding and skipping in a winding, looping skein of movement. A hugely sophisticated work that bathes the audience in a dreamlike glow. LW Read the review

See, feel and hear Schumann … V at Sadler’s Wells, London, in 2001.
See, feel and hear Schumann … V at Sadler’s Wells, London, in 2001. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian


V (2001)

As with all of Mark Morris’s best work, V does more than take inspiration from its accompanying score; it allows you to see, feel and hear the genius of Schumann’s Piano Quintet in E flat major with a piercing clarity. From its passages of brightly crafted invention – floated on music of rapt and tender lyricism – to the stark, even abject melancholy of its darker sections, this is pure dance at its most emotionally and physically distilled. JM Read the review

Cosmic yet intimate … Bird Song.
Cosmic yet intimate … Bird Song. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian


Bird Song (2004)

A formative figure of British dance, Siobhan Davies has for many years eschewed the stage as a platform for creation; perhaps, after Bird Song, she could go no further in this direction. Meshing astonishingly fine detail within a sweeping compositional frame – a kind of choreographic vortex that spirals into, then out of, a hushed central solo – the work feels cosmic in reach and intimate in effect, like a galaxy with the song of a bird at its centre. SR Read the review


Formosa (2017)

Lin Hwai-min’s final work for Cloud Gate Dance Theatre, the company he founded in 1973, shows both the sure hand of long experience and an imagination still fresh and full of wonder. A tribute to Lin’s native Taiwan that deftly weaves choreography, scenography, voiceover and typography, its nine numinously poetic scenes are as distilled, elegant and dense with imagery as the Chinese script itself, whether Lin is contemplating an egret, a war, city life or the sea. SR Read the review


Desh (2011)

London-born Akram Khan is one of the most captivating dancers of his generation, his childhood training in the Indian classical dance form kathak underpinning explorations in contemporary dance and performance. Following powerful pure dance works and experiments with text, Desh is the solo that most successfully synthesised Khan’s mix of awe-inspiring physicality and funny, searching monologue, as Khan journeys into his Bangladeshi heritage with Tim Yip’s designs creating a magical visual feast. LW Read the review


Bosque Ardora (2014)

Flamenco firecracker Rocío Molina makes actual sparks fly with her ferocious feet (and some clever props). A dancer capable of immense grace but also beautiful spikiness, awkward angles and compelling physical contrariness, Molina produces work that blazes with feminism, even when she doesn’t overtly state it. Bosque Ardora casts her as a creature of the woods, both hunter and hunted in a capricious game with the men on stage. It’s an audacious, inventive, blistering piece. LW Read the review

Four Quartets
Fascinating threads of movement unspool … Four Quartets. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian


Four Quartets (2018)

After two decades in New York’s underground scene, Pam Tanowitz seemingly conquered the dance world with a single work. In the first authorised dance version of TS Eliot’s Four Quartets, Tanowitz’s movement gets inside Eliot’s musings on time in the strong internal rhythms of its richly textured choreography. As well as a real clarity of line and voice, it has beautiful craft and is always unpredictable, as fascinating threads of movement unspool, taking the viewer in unexpected directions. LW Read the review


Paradise Lost (lies unopened beside me) (2015)

An inspired fantasia on Milton’s Paradise Lost by the writer, performer and choreographer Ben Duke. In this witty but profound solo show, Duke uses a mix of text, movement and bewildered charm to tackle the labours and horrors of creation, playing wild and free with the source text. The genius comes in drawing parallels between God’s task and Duke’s own more commonplace, but no less mind blowing, act of creation: parenthood. Duke’s follow-up, riffing on Romeo and Juliet, is just as accomplished. LW Read the review


East Wall (2018)

Community dance often has a celebratory or affirmative remit, but East Wall – a collaboration between choreographer Hofesh Shechter and East London Dance, staged in front of a postcard-perfect Tower of London – feels more like sticking your finger in a socket and being jolted by the vitality and violence of a place and its people. Krump vies with gospel and Bowie, a band of Beefeaters march over a civilian, clowns caper with executioners and hallowed heritage clashes with messy, multiracial histories. Scrappy it may be, but oh – the force, the life. SR Read the review

Painful to watch … Umwelt. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian


Umwelt (2004)

Understandably, Maguy Marin’s Umwelt always induces walkouts. Nine mirrored panels rotate slowly, for an hour. Nine performers emerge at each turn to execute an action – all deadpan, whether it’s mopping the floor, pointing a gun or chucking out a baby doll. There’s a pervasive noise, as blank as the wind. A rope winches across the stage, at paint-drying pace. The entire process remains indifferent to our thoughts, feelings, wishes or indeed presence. Painful to watch, yes, but there it is: an unblinking glimpse into the void at the core of our existence. SR Read the review


Woolf Works (2015)

Wayne McGregor’s three-act work for the Royal Ballet makes characteristically brilliant mayhem with the conventions of narrative dance. Inspired by the life and writings of Virginia Woolf, it ranges in style and content from the inner emotional dramas of Mrs Dalloway to the time-bending fantasy of Orlando and the limpid reflections on mortality in The Waves. With a lavishly atmospheric score from Max Richter, mind-altering lighting by Lucy Carter, and a deeply affecting central performance from Alessandra Ferri, Woolf Works takes McGregor to a freer choreographic space than he’d seemingly inhabited before. JM Read the review


Véronique Doisneau (2004)

French provocateur Jérôme Bel illuminates the life of ballet’s worker bees, the corps de ballet, in a solo for Paris Opera Ballet’s Véronique Doisneau (later released as a film). Forty-one and nearing retirement, Doisneau stands centre stage and talks of her career, the parts she danced, and most poignantly the ones she didn’t – she floats through a scene from Giselle, humming the music to herself, haunting the role. It’s a bittersweet story of almost, but not quite, achieving one’s dream. LW Read more about Bel

A masterclass in understated intensity … Russell Maliphant and Sylvie Guillem in Push. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian


Push (2005)

When it comes to hushed, hypnotic beauty, Russell Maliphant has created a few contenders for this list (notably 2009’s AfterLight, his solo for Daniel Proietto). However, Push is not only an exceptional piece of dance, but a reinvention for legendary ballerina Sylvie Guillem, shifting her career from classical to contemporary. In shadows and spotlights, with Maliphant’s Zen-like martial arts-inspired choreography, the pair build an equal partnership of tension, fluidity and deep trust; a masterclass in understated intensity. LW Read the review


Merce Cunningham at the Tate Modern (2003)

It’s hard to think of another performance where dance, design and location coincided to such serendipitously beautiful effect. Framed by the cosmic sorcery of Olafur Eliasson’s Weather Project, the dancers from Cunningham’s company took possession of the vast Turbine Hall, sometimes moving so close to those of us watching that we felt the whiplash passing of their bodies, sometimes receding into the outer edges of hall, silhouetted against the giant glowing radiance of Eliasson’s sun. Both intensely intimate and spectacularly awesome – it feels as though the universe were dancing around us. JM Read the review


Sutra (2008)

In this funny, charismatic and profoundly humane collaboration between Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and the monks from Shaolin Temple, there is not a whiff of fake “exoticism” or cultural appropriation. Cherkaoui’s choreography revels in the maniacal danger and beauty of the monks’ kung fu heritage – shamelessly displaying their shadow-boxing, backflips and flying kicks – but it also explores the spiritual and social heart of the Shaolin’s monastic world. A journey of joyous exchange for Cherkaoui as well for as his audience. JM Read the review


Swan Lake/Loch Na hEala (2016)

Rarely does dance address specific social issues with the imagination and sophistication of Michael Keegan-Dolan’s Loch Na hEala, unpicking Swan Lake’s simplistic view of good and evil via a story of sexual abuse in the Catholic church. There’s always been a bristling undercurrent of scorn in the Irish choreographer’s work, but the power of this piece is the marriage of blunt detail and disgust with moments of mythical transcendence, all swirled together like the mist on a lake. LW Read the review


Betroffenheit (2015)

One of the most thrilling dance stories of the new century has been the rise and rise of Crystal Pite. With a steadfast belief in her own choreographic principles, Pite has created true and startling works for both classical and contemporary companies. Her language has taken flight in epic compositions of abstract dance but, as in her harrowing masterpiece Betroffenheit, it has also plumbed depths of human experience. Created in collaboration with actor and writer Jonathon Young, this 2015 work explores the hellhole of grief into which Young was plunged by the accidental deaths of his daughter, nephew and niece. The pain, humiliation and sheer ugliness of that experience is given searing physical embodiment in Pite’s choreography but so too is the slow process of recovery and redemption. As raw and unflinching as Betroffenheit is, however, you come away from it with a wild feeling of exhilaration – uplifted by its courage, its coruscating beauty and by the faith it affirms in the power of art to address emotions that lie beyond reason or words. JM Read the review


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