Farewells – of a kind – by three long-established men loomed large on the London spring season. Lin Hwai-min, who founded Taiwan’s landmark Cloud Gate Dance Theatre in 1973, announced his retirement as artistic director and presented his final company work, Formosa, as part of a world tour. Final works are often written about as eulogies for a whole career, but let me instead focus on the piece, which was among Cloud Gate’s best.
Portuguese explorers in the 16th century called Taiwan Ilha Formosa (beautiful island), and both words are apt for Lin’s creation, which was not only beautiful but felt curiously like a kind of island itself. Beginning and ending with projections of the sea, Lin populated his choreographic terrain with nine distinct scenes, each as contained and as numinous as the poems that accompanied them. Initially pastoral – a rustic line dance, a hushed image of a watcher transfixed by a white egret, as portrayed by a poised, passing soloist – the scenes became more turbulent, with ragged rushes evoking the nervous energy of cities; with factions at war; and with catastrophe, as thuds like falling bombs scattered the dancers into panicked patterns. Behind them, stunning animations showed Chinese typography scrolling, drifting and exploding. Indeed, Lin’s exquisite choreography seemed as distilled, as elegant and as dense with imagery as the Chinese script itself, and even at its most violent was never less than beautiful – Formosa.
A different kind of poetry came in the shape of Life is a Dream, by Danish choreographer Kim Brandstrup for Rambert – the farewell company commission by retiring artistic director Mark Baldwin. Though billed as a narrative drama – and indeed based on one (a 17th-century Spanish play by Calderón de la Barca) – Brandstrup had buried any semblance of plot to give free rein to imagery, mood and symbolism.
The premise is that a slumbering theatre director is dreaming of a play rehearsal, but the feel was more cinematic than theatrical. The set by the Quay Brothers (best known for their work in film and animation) showed a studio with windows that became screens for projections of trees, skies, fields – imaginary worlds beyond the stage. The studio itself – a metaphor for the creative imagination, but also a kind of chamber of existential doubt – was populated by doppelgangers and alter egos. Shadowy figures of actors swirled moth-like around a sinewy central duo, played by three different couples in succession, and two figures (Liam Francis and Miguel Altunaga) playing the role of the stage director. Who was acting, who directing? Who real and who imagined? As in a dream, sequences looped, images bloomed and faded, everything felt charged with significance and yet nothing was understood.
For the second half, the stage was stripped of its illusory walls and windows, and though the choreography was no less poetic or beautifully composed, the lack of narrative anchors became an obstacle. Out of the twilight zone, we needed something more solid.
What kind of farewell was Akram Khan’s Xenos? Billed, accurately, as Khan’s last full-length solo performance, many inferred that it somehow marked his departure from the stage altogether. Not at all true – but it did no harm to publicity, and encouraged eulogies. Like his last full-length solo Desh, Xenos set Khan as a small figure within a large history – here, an Indian soldier in the first world war. The production was grand: a huge rampart screed with soil; musicians up high on a platform, like gods; lighting that shadowed, searched and flushed the stage. The performance too hit home: Khan, as ever, commanded the stage even against this imposing backdrop. Yet the piece itself faltered: after a gripping opening in which Khan played a shell-shocked soldier reliving the torments of war, it slowly lost contact with its character and succumbed to more generic images of suffering, swollen by musical crescendos that – like the show’s own publicity – repeatedly raised false expectations of endings.
Northern Ballet’s Jane Eyre by British choreographer Cathy Marston (like the above works, also at Sadler’s Wells) began with a lone woman struggling to cross the stage but being lifted, surrounded and blocked by a male chorus – an apt image for the character of Jane Eyre but also resonant for Marston herself, as a classical choreographer in a male-dominated field. Over 20 years, Marston has developed her own highly economical style of ballet storytelling, and though Jane Eyre’s novelistic sweep sometimes sprawls, her production for Northern Ballet kept connected to the story of her heroine: neither princess nor siren, but a woman who marshals her resources to forge a life for herself against the odds, and in circumstances not of her making.
In contrast to the men making their various farewells, Marston seems at last to be moving further into the limelight. Northern Ballet recently announced a new work from her about Queen Victoria – though I, for one, would love also to see what she might make of more marginalised characters such as Jane Eyre’s demonised Bertha – the “madwoman in the attic” rather than the upstanding or inspiring heroine.