Mark Bruce is a fascinating, highly distinctive choreographer, his work frequently spiralling around themes of darkness, myth, fantasy and the unconscious. His recent pieces – Macbeth, The Odyssey, Dracula – folded these fixations into well-known narratives, but Return to Heaven harks back to a more fractured, collagistic mode; indeed it draws directly on images and effects from earlier works, notably Made in Heaven.
This is both its strength and weakness. On the one hand, liberated from story, Bruce’s free associations lead to some delirious images, jump-cuts and fusions. A headless giant looms in the darkness. An astronaut falls to earth. In one vertiginous mashup of dystopian road movie and classic horror, two fugitives in a car (Eleanor Duval and Dane Hurst) are stopped by cops, one of whom, his face pelleted by bullet holes, seems to be a zombie. Meanwhile, dismembered hands spider-crawl across Duval’s hair. She mutates into a vampire and gets Hurst in the neck.
On the other hand, it’s like being on a rollercoaster, ghost train, merry-go-round and the dodgems all at once: sensationally stimulating but perilously dizzying and sometimes hard to stomach. Here’s an ice-cream seller handing over a mystic key. There’s a corpse-bride, briefly emerging from the shadows, scientists in gas masks, a cajun cowgirl, a giant shark. Now we’re in a swampy forest; now on the moon; now in a pharaoh’s tomb.
Catching everything the piece throws at them are the designs – light, set and costumes all fantastically versatile – and ultimately the skilled dancers themselves, who come into their own especially in some tautly inventive choreographic episodes: a frenetic group thrash on the floor; a ferocious kneeling duet, with Jordi Calpe Serrats and Carina Howard rising and lunging like hooded cobras.
It might work better with a more informal, irreverent presentation that plays up to the cultish, B-movie undercurrents, releasing its wry laughs and occasional guffaws. Still, when it falters, Return to Heaven can look hollow or even silly, and though its scenes often work well individually they lose impact cumulatively. Certainly it needs no narrative, but such threads that it does have – winding between calypso, Anubis and outer space – string the work out more than they pull it together.