As a touring repertory company, Phoenix Dance Theatre always has to address the ultimately unsolvable question of how to present work that appeals to, challenges and satisfies a mixed audience for whom appeal, challenge and satisfaction may mean wildly different things. Their solution is eclectic programming, and great dancers. The current programme is a characteristically mixed bill that you could approach from many different directions. My take was through the music.
You can see why Maurice Ravel, a composer of refinement, craft and contained emotion, might appeal to choreographer Richard Alston. With All Alight, Alston’s first work for Phoenix, Ravel’s Sonata for Violin and Cello seems to have brought out the best in him, the supple choreography responding to the bracing harmonies, lilting asymmetries and manifold textures in the score (the strings are thoroughly worked over, variously bowed, stopped, plucked and scraped).
The outer allegro movements show the cast of seven chasing and circling each other, just as the musical themes pursue each other from cello to violin and back again; and all in Alston’s characteristically fluent and weighted style of deep folds, pitches and tilts.
that rarest of qualities whereby the choreography, without imitating the score, takes on the ineffable quality of music itself
It’s the inner movements, however, that lift the work into something altogether more unexpected. The scherzo, combining plucky brightness with bruising rasps, finds its counterpart in the interplay of a driving duet of effervescent hops, brisk lunges and broken angles. The long, fugal adagio is realised as an exquisitely composed trio, Phil Sanger, Sam Vaherlehto and Jitka Tumová imparting gravitas to the trio’s slow instabilities, composed through careful leans, deep lunges and tender touches. The trio has that rarest of qualities – found in Balanchine, in some mid-career Ashton – whereby the choreography, without imitating the score, takes on the ineffable quality of music itself, its expressivity manifested through corpus and composition without recourse to acting or emoting. My only wish for All Alight was that the final movement, like the opening one, had ended unresolved, leaving us with less sense of closure and more of wonder.
The music is the main problem in José Agudo’s Ki, a solo for Josh Wille, who begins gasping on the floor as if newly born, then gradually rises to discover the prowess of his own body through martial-arts maneouvres, t’ai chi lunges and barrelling spins and jumps. In truth, the prowess is rather easily achieved; some of the most interesting moves are on the cusp between floorbound curl and upright command. The choreographic arc and substance are simple enough, and the straightforward crescendo and new-agey ambience of the music seem merely to labour that point. But Wille certainly delivers a powerful performance.
Douglas Thorpe’s Tender Crazy Love takes its cue from popular songs – Al Green’s “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart”, Dick Dale’s “Miserlou”, Nancy Sinatra’s “Bang Bang” and Wovenhand’s “His Loyal Love”. The piece charts the often violent and always dysfunctional relationship between a pair of lovers, Sandrine Monin and Sanger performing their knotty knockbacks and mixed-message grapplings with conviction. This is a hit and miss affair, however, choreographically as well as thematically.
Sharon Watson’s Repetition of Change is set to demanding music, scored by Kenneth Hesketh for a bracing combination of percussion, saxophone, flute and strings, and tackled with no little brio by the Psappha ensemble. Sanger is once again the standout dancer, this time cast as some kind of shaman, the vast robe trailing from his neck later used as a backcloth. The dancers wear lopsided dresses – two red ones among the black – that spiral with every move. The choreography is often too dense and detailed, and so submerged by the density and detail in the music; but it comes into its own when larger, more open structures come into play. Repetition of Change is a difficult piece to engage with, but certainly not wanting for ambition.