Glancing through the programme for Aisha and Abhaya, a co-production between Rambert and the Royal Opera House, I saw that there would be a framing film, and a story that took Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Match Girl as its point of departure. It looks to me, I said to the woman sitting next to me, like the kind of piece that might explain itself as it goes along.
How wrong I was. Let me walk you through it. Directed by film-maker Kibwe Tavares, with choreography by Sharon Eyal and Gai Behar, its opening section – entitled “Journey” – begins with a film that mixes mythic imagery with documentary realism. Two sisters in luxurious finery – brocade gowns, elaborate headdresses, strings of pearly beads – are washed up onto a grey shoreline, castaways from some faraway, folkloric world. The waves heave over them, but one of them manages to keep hold of a small treasure: a box that opens to reveal a magical dancer, formed of threads of golden light.
Aisha (Salomé Pressac) and Abhaya (Maëve Berthelot) wander into a forest, where they encounter a ragged encampment, figures in white circling a fire in a shamanic ritual of judders and spasms. They join in. Next day, they all trek across the wild terrain until they come to a kind of portal in a mountainside; and they go inside.
In a slow and beguiling transition from screen to stage, the lights bring up Rambert’s seven superb dancers while the film now becomes a backdrop, looping so that we seem to be travelling along an endless corridor that keeps withholding the promise of light at the end of the tunnel. The soundtrack – by Ori Lichtik (a founding father of Israel’s techno scene), with additional music by “ghetto-futurist” composer Gaika – begins its long, slow crescendo of grey noise and rising volume.
The dancers now enact another, more tightly choreographed ritual, technically demanding and fiendishly tense: arms slowly wrench at their sockets to skew the torso, deep squats keep the feet planted. You feel both the strength and the strain. The corridor continues, the sound builds, the dancers keep twisting and stretching, their energies swelling and subsiding, but never releasing.
Where do they fit in the story, though? We might recognise the dancers as the travellers from the film, people transformed into superhuman dancing machines, but what’s happened to Aisha and Abhaya? Berthelot is in fact one of the dancers; but now, leotarded and torquing, nothing connects her to the character of Abhaya or distinguishes her from the others. As for Aisha: no trace.
Eventually the projected corridor leads to a kind of information highway of graphic patterns that evoke both an abstracted metropolis and flows of data. The dancers heighten their stance and speed, mixing in bits of robotically distorted classical ballet with mechanical samba steps and splayed catwalk struts.
Cut again to the film, a sequence titled “Before”. The backstory, then. Here are Aisha and Abhaya in full folkloric mode, in a house with a beloved mother figure (Angela Wynter). In burst masked gunmen; the sisters hide in terror; the mother is killed. Cut to the stage, where the backdrop fills up with animated clones of the dancers until it seems fit to burst. Back to the film, where the sisters, still in their finery, are now rough-sleeping in a backstreet. The mother appears to them in a dream, the magic golden dancer arises, and they all turn into filaments of light. The End.
What to make of all this? When I have mixed feelings, I sometimes mentally divide a dancework into three dimensions: performance, production and piece. What do we have here? Highly skilled, eminently watchable performers and an impressively sleek production with some great special effects. The piece itself, however, is entirely flummoxing, its parts crammed together, chalk with cheese.
Aisha and Abhaya, say Rambert, “represents what people can achieve when they work together. We believe in welcoming new and different voices to our artform, and responding to their vision and ways of working.” All good and true, but the different voices need to come into meaningful conversation with each other – and with their audience – and it just didn’t work out this time.