London saw some marvellously understated dance this autumn. William Forsythe’s A Quiet Evening of Dance at Sadler’s Wells had a bare stage, low-key lighting and soft sounds, yet it revealed a kind of introverted virtuosity that left you speechless. Act 1 opened with an intimate duet for Parvaneh Schafarali and Ander Zabala, its small steps and darting swerves as soft and exacting as the birdsong on its soundtrack. There followed a breathtaking duet by senior dancers Jill Johnson and Christopher Roman who, accompanied only by their own hushed breath, articulated detailed sequences of moves based on balletic geometries (pointed foot, angled leg) and anatomical actions of the joints: the swivels and folds of shoulder, knee and elbow.
Morton Feldman’s atonal plinks formed a sparse accompaniment to the subsequent more idiosyncratic danced episodes, one solo keeping the arms and hands close to the face, another showing, without flash, just how the extraordinary b-boy dancer Rauf “RubberLegz” Yasit earned his nickname. Act 1 ended with a reprise of a 2015 duet (to birdsong again), Brigel Gjoka and Riley Watts echoing each other as if giving different expressions to the same choreographic template of slips, skitters and knots.
Act 2, to courtly music by Jean-Philippe Rameau, showed a gentle theatricality. Johnson and Roman became a kind of couple: she preoccupied, he rather particular. There was humour in Yasit’s lock-limbed, floorbound interruption of an elegant duet; sadness elsewhere, with bodies weighted as if by inner burdens. Though the style, staging and effect were more conventional here, you could almost see through them to the sparse structures of Act 1, lying beneath like a choreographic skeleton.
Similarly low-key but more profoundly emotional was Shobana Jeyasingh’s Contagion, performed by eight women in the public hall of the British Library. Having been commissioned by the 14-18 NOW programme to mark the centenary of the First World War, Jeyasingh’s curiosity was piqued not by the familiar drama of trenches and shellshock, but the more sidelined story of the global Spanish Flu pandemic that began just as the war was ending, killing more than twice as many as the entire conflict.
The performance space was strewn with white plinths: sickbeds or morgue slabs, scattered like dice, and used as screens to project archive footage of the war, images of the flu virus itself (it looks like uncannily like a naval mine), and the solarised outlines of fevered bodies. In simple bandage-like costumes, the dancers sprawled awkwardly over these boxes, limbs twisted and heads dangling as if left lying where they fell. The audience were given headphones to listen to the soundtrack – a practical measure with an unsettlingly emotional effect, making the piece feel like a private rather than a public experience.
A story of sorts threaded through, loosely stitched by fragmented voiceovers from diaries and medical records. If the dancers’ opening gestures formed funereal images of pleading and loss, the piece soon turned more biological. The sound of gasps mixed with the fluttering of birds (it was an avian flu), while the performers transformed into inhuman agents executing sequences of set moves, spines flexing and elbows jutting.
The consequent contortions and rictus spasms suggested bodies occupied by unseen invaders, no longer in command of their own territory. Yet such grotesque, disturbing images broke, like a fever, into a final scene of unacknowledged labour and infinite tenderness: women attending to the sick. For the war that this spare, poetic work commemorated had no nation, no victory, no surrender. Its battleground was the human body, its unsung heroes the people – mostly women – who nursed it.
Dance Umbrella, London’s annual autumn festival of contemporary dance, turned 40 this year. Still innovating in a much changed dance scene, its headline act was The Great Tamer, by Greek choreographer Dimitris Papaioannou, a follow-up to his 2016 Umbrella hit Primal Matter. Like that earlier duet, The Great Tamer was based more on imagery than action, but here on a much grander scale, filling the Sadler’s Wells stage.
The Bauschian set was a broad bank of loosely overlapping tiles, which the 10 performers walked over, emerged from or disappeared beneath. Like Bausch again, the action took the form of short, repetitive and often nonsensical actions: the draught from a flipped tile blowing a piece of gauze to reveal a naked man beneath; a woman wandering about in a tunic, like a lost Greek nymph, followed not long after by an astronaut in full space suit.
Particularly striking was a scene where the variously exposed body parts of several dancers clustered together to form a ghoulish composite of limbs; and one in which a rain of feathered arrows shot across the stage to land in the tiles, like trembling golden ears of wheat. A surreal, painterly work that could have benefited from a more variety of pacing, its images stayed in your mind long after, quivering like those arrows.