Formed in 2013, the National Youth Dance Company offers dancers aged 16–19 a golden opportunity to gain performance experience under the guidance of a different guest director each year – currently Akram Khan. An excerpt of Khan’s 2010 piece Vertical Road, reworked for 11 of the second-year dancers of NYDC, forms the more professionally polished half of the company’s 2014 programme. Its imagery is burningly beautiful: the dancers, lit in a desert haze, stand out against a billowing backcloth that seems to form a veil between this world and the next. In front, 10 figures stand like statues; behind, a spectral presence pushes ominously against the fabric, as if trying to become manifest.
The choreography sees the performers enact a kind of spell of summoning, shamanic rites of trance and convulsion pulling them into lines or scattering them across the stage, while Nitin Sawhney’s filmic score relentlessly racks up tension with searing chords and pounding beats. Yet for all its contained force, and despite the performers’ remarkable discipline and gravitas, the piece feels overburdened by portent, its choreographic material too thin to manifest the mysticism it seems to reach for.
The Rashomon Effect, created for NYDC’s 30 first-year dancers, with nine musicians from the National Youth Orchestra, is directed by Khan but choreographed by Andrej Petrovic, one of his company dancers. Its massed, rhythmic effects and weighty symbolic load share an affinity with Vertical Road, but the piece also taps more directly into the spirit of youth: it has less control but more surprise, and if it starts erratically it ends astonishingly.
Taking its cue from Akira Kurosawa’s film Rashomon, the piece presents several different treatments of the same basic material: here, the dynamic between the individual and the group. At first the crowd clumps like bees around the gasping, abject figure of Folu Odimayo, exerting a menacing, impersonal pressure, which eventually absorbs him into the hive.
dancers swarm the stage in grasping chains that evoke the demonic, or the damned
Then, as drums replace the musical drone, they become militaristically drilled, impervious to another soloist who has emerged from the mass – the compelling Arran Green, who tumbles and coils about the stage. The final section is quite extraordinary. Like some poltergeist conduit, Heather Birley, her red tresses completely covering her face, becomes an unwitting magnet for dancers who cluster into composite, many-headed creatures, or swarm the stage in grasping chains that evoke the demonic, or the damned. It’s a wholly unexpected scene, dense with drama but not remotely played for effect. The performers seem scarcely aware of their power, which only multiplies it.