Composer Steve Reich has left his mark on a generation. Hugely influential in music, he has also been an inspiration for many choreographers – and it’s gratifying, for dance lovers at least, that the Barbican Centre’s performance series to celebrate Reich’s seventieth birthday opened with a triple bill of choreography to his music.
The first is a contemporary classic. Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s Fase (1982) was only her second composition, but immediately attracted widespread attention, and was a hit in that year’s Dance Umbrella. Has it dated? Not by this showing, which, though it presents only two of the four original movements, retains a gripping power. Reich’s early experiments were minimal, evolutionary pieces – looped repetitions of phrases that changed almost imperceptibly, gradually moving in and out of phase with each other. De Keersmaeker’s Fase, an obsessive, hard-edged study in rhythm and pattern, rigorously follows the same principles. But it’s much more than a simple translation from one medium to another. In Piano Phase, De Keersmaeker and Tale Dolven set out the premise: two female dancers, in identical plain dresses and sneakers, recycle the same moves. Deadpan, they spin on the spot, led by on casually swinging arm, or topple forward into a little hop-and-skip. Like the music, the dancers form patterns of interference, their doubled shadows merging and separating on the backcloth behind them. Is that enough for a piece of choreography? Certainly: this hypnotic study aches with simplicity and transports you to a different world. The second section, to Violin Phase, is a solo version of the same principle, De Keersmaeker endlessly revisiting little skippy phrases. Here she’s added a touch of schoolgirlish humour, flouncing her skirt and swishing upstage. And it would have been even better – especially for newcomers to this work – if we could have seen the remaining two sections, which add their own, darker intimations to these compulsive compositions.
Next came a new commission by Richard Alston, to Reich’s Proverb. The music combines antique religiosity with airy modern harmonies – and, played live by the Athelas Sinfonietta Copenhagen and sung by the Theatre of Voices, it’s a pleasure to listen to. Like the music, the choreography constructs a Palladian edifice of architectural structures and intimate textures. But unlike the music, it doesn’t quite work. Perhaps the score was overwhelming; or perhaps the dance might have revealed its secrets in a smaller, more intimate setting. As it was, it failed to project into the gaping spaces of the Barbican Theatre, and despite nuanced performances from the 10-strong company, its coded, gendered sections failed to ignite sparks.
He is better on dancing than on structure – on notes and dynamics, if you like, rather than on composition
Finally came another new commission by a much younger choreographer, though no less in demand: Akram Khan. Sparks were in abundance here. South African Gregory Maqoma opens with a slightly dodgy monologue, but hits the spot when he says that dance is as close to music “as heart is to a heartbeat”. It’s this dictum that powers the three dancers – Maqoma, Khan and Young Jin Kim – through Reich’s Variations for Vibes, Pianos and Strings, another live piece, with the London Sinfonietta musicians arrayed across the back of the stage. In the first section the three dancers plunge across the stage with fleet footage and whirlwind arms, almost fighting the swell of music. In the second, conductor Alan Pierson joins the dance, his hands marking the dynamic and urging on the instrumentalists. Wryly, the dancers mimic and then exaggerate his conductor’s limbs, their arms gathering up and cutting through space as if the air were made of sound itself. Khan is better on dancing than on structure – on notes and dynamics, if you like, rather than on composition – but on that level this is rousing stuff, and leaves you wondering: what would the music be like if, instead of the dancers taking their cue from the conductor, the musicians took their cue from the dancers?