Subterrain, Ashley Page’s new work for Rambert, is like a three-line riddle, posed by Jon Morrell’s set. A brief title sequence sees two men climb through a hole as if descending into an underworld. Line (scene) one: light enters through splintered wooden rafters that hang wonkily above the stage. Line two: a gloomy backcloth features a faintly sinister doorway, like a portal to a cellar. Line three: the backcloth lifts, but the rafters return, straighter this time. It’s all pretty dark, and enigmatic.
The sequential logic is powerfully suggestive – and still, the riddle remains
Music and choreography fill out the lines but leave the question mark – what is this piece? – hanging in the air. In the first scene, the jagged sounds of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s score splinter around five couples, who are all on stage together but each a world unto themselves. Each couple tangles with its own “issues”, its own angled lifts and skewed tilts and tumbles. It’s a spikily dynamic section, also emotionally claustrophobic, even oppressive: the couples generate intensity, but no release. In the second scene, to more ambient music by Aphex Twin, the couples appear on stage one at a time. They take the space, and the time: the slipknot partnering is still there, but slowed into more sinuous folds and leans. We breathe more easily. A mysterious hooded figure ushers in the final section and more of Turnage’s restless score, which now unbinds the couples: trios open up, outsiders intrude upon partnerships, groupings form and split. The sequential logic of Subterrain is powerfully suggestive – and still, the riddle remains.
heavyweight symbols in what is essentially a lightweight piece
There’s logic, of a kind, in Mark Baldwin’s Comedy of Change, made in 2009 for the 150th anniversary of Darwin’s Origin of Species. The dancers emerge one by one from white pods, new-born beings sporting binary costumes, black at the back, white at the front. The choreography sees them “evolve” into a menagerie of life forms, with crabby crawls, butterfly tremors, lizard wriggles, winged jumps. Julian Anderson’s score is of the same cast as Turnage’s, stuffed with restless rhythms and fragmented motifs, but its effect is more of lively variety than murky intensity. There is even a mysterious hooded figure – the dancers construct a hollow idol of metal foil – who ushers in the final scene, in which the performers lose their duality: they are all clad either in white, or in black. The colour coding and the final scene (the idol is crushed) are heavyweight symbols in what is essentially a lightweight piece. Comedy of Change may evoke Darwin the natural historian, inspired by the sheer diversity of Galápagos finches and tortoises; but there is little trace of his work of scientific genius, the theory of evolution, even though its principles of mutation and selection are both eminently choreographic ideas.
If Comedy of Change is about animal life, Barak Marshall’s The Castaways is very much a comédie humaine – a sideways look at the follies and absurdities of human existence. The set-up is reminiscent of the TV series Lost: a motley cast lie strewn across the floor, like human flotsam washed up onto the stage, having apparently been dumped there from a vast metal chute that hangs high to one side. The stock, flat characters – a jilted bride, a trio of spiteful bridesmaids, a soldier, a dreamer, a hot-blooded Latin couple – are loosely marshalled into a ragged choreographic collage which mixes bits of character exposition with outbursts of folk dance, war scenes (nicely evoked, with balloons bursting like grenades) and pauses in which everyone looks up and wonders what in heaven, or hell, is at the other end of that chute. The music is equally eclectic, a roisterous mix of trad jazz, Yiddish pop and Balkan folk. It’s only intermittently engaging, and all in all, Castaways rather coasts along on its own bluster. But such, perhaps, is life.