The music for Philippe Decouflé’s Sombrero – encompassing Brian Eno, Satie, jazz standards and plenty more besides – is a genre-straddling mix of composition, arrangement and pastiche, of acoustic and electronic, live and recorded sounds. Unusually, the dance matches that mix: Decouflé’s magpie imagination characteristically jumbles contemporary choreography with classic iconography, live action with stage trickery, performance with film.
The prologue is hammy fairground patter, the performers extolling the wonders about to be revealed. In fact, Sombrero ranges from the sublime to the merely kooky. The opening, for example, is fairly banal: dancers squiggling across the white stage, shadowed on the floor by completely blacked-up partners, who then get up and dance among themselves. The shadowplay is diverting, but the idea isn’t developed beyond a kind of choreographic doodling.
Things get better when Decouflé starts playing with real shadows, using such simple devices as moveable lamps, screens and projectors. A soloist morphs from human to spider to amoeba; shadows split and multiply, spinning about on their own or turning from black to white. A group of dancers merge to form a chomping, bug-eyed monster, and giant hands loom over the live performers like the fingers of a ghostly puppetmaster.
Sometimes, the illusions intimate something deeper. One scene, projected on both floor and backcloth, becomes a kind of living Escher drawing: action proliferates through shadows and images to conjure a world of giddy multiple perspectives, populated by fleeting avatars. Another scene has a cosmic reach, zooming in on to the face and hands of one performer as a pulsing cityscape explodes behind her into galactic whorls and psychedelic fractals, themselves made of tiny human figures. And there is an affectingly romantic duet – or rather quartet, since it is for two performers and their silhouettes. The live dancers connect only through their shadows, which grow small and big, fade and flicker. Which is just how love is: embodied but phantom, feeling real but looking illusory.
The ending is sweet and affecting, too: a cut-out desert landscape rolls by as Decouflé dons a sombrero and turns into a spaghetti-western loner. He rides off into a sunset brimming with his own projected images, turning finally into his own hat. Sombrero doesn’t always take you on its ride, but when Decouflé the easy entertainer yields to Decouflé the master magician, he leaves you delighted and astonished.