Two young women in heavy robes and elaborate headdresses scramble ashore on a deserted beach. The camera moves blurrily in closeup, suggesting the disorientating experience of being washed up in a strange land. These refugee sisters, Aisha and Abhaya, are the protagonists of a frustratingly unsuccessful experiment in merging film and contemporary dance, by innovative director and animator Kibwe Tavares and edgy Israeli choreographer Sharon Eyal, with dancers from Rambert in a co-production with the Royal Ballet.
There’s plenty of talent involved (Tavares’s musician brother Gaika and out-there costume designer Uldus Bakhtiozina are also in the mix) but they’re working at cross purposes, as if there are two different shows going on at once. As soon as the live dancers are revealed on stage, Tavares’s emerging story disappears and Eyal seems to be doing what she wants regardless.
If you like what Eyal does and if you also like dark, driving techno (earplugs provided at the door) then the central section of the show is a prime example of the intoxicating allure of her choreography, which drugs you into submission with its pulsating repetitions. It is deeply sensual, the fierce-eyed, sweat-glistened dancers confined to small hypnotic movements, little jolts like the scratch of a delicious itch, popping from the solar plexus. Fused with sound and light, the effect is to go beyond the body to a shared vibration, in the way of a densely crowded dance floor.
The film behind them, a long dolly shot speeding through dim corridors, effectively sucks the viewer into the stage, and when it finally breaks out to a kind of flashing, futuristic cityscape it’s a visual rush. A great standalone piece of dance, it’s just got nothing to do with what has come before, the story, the characters or the stated aims of the piece.
Tavares’s animations are striking, his film thick with atmosphere, but this feels like an unfinished project. It’s admirable to try to create a modern fairytale on relevant themes, to explore new collaborators and mediums, but you need rigorous artistic direction underpinning the wild ambition.
At the Royal Opera House’s Linbury theatre, London, until 9 February.