Dance is the closest I get to religion. The comparison felt particularly apt at Sadlers Wells on Thursday, where Russell Maliphant and Sylvie Guillem returned for two nights with Push, their half hour duet, accompanied by three solo performances, Solo, Shift and Two.
So why the comparison with religion? Because this is an oddly devotional experience: closest, perhaps, to Rothko, or a Robert Bresson film. This is dance at its most stripped down: no set, no narrative, just bodies, light and music. Shorn of theatrical distractions, it demands your absolute attention, tiny shifts of light and muscle detonating through the room.
The effect is enhanced by Maliphant’s choroeography, which is extraordinarily demanding, but refuses ever to show off. There’s no extravagance, no showiness, just absolute physical grace: Guillem is performing miracles, but they’re the miracles of a surgeon, not a conjuror.
Push, of all the pieces here, is warmer, lusher, at times even romantic, beginning with the two performers locked together, a single shadowed animal on stage. Then they split, circling, hungry, mirroring each other, before coming together once again. It’s a riveting performance, and I’ve rarely felt an audience more focused, fifteen hundred people concentrated on one spot.
And that’s the power of Maliphant’s work: the choroeography is intellectual, but its effect is emotional, exhilarating. At the end of the performance we came out gorging on endorphins, physically excited by the mental work-out of the show. It’s a brilliant demonstration of the power of withheld emotion: we’ve become so used to easy triggers — familiar songs and CGI — that the real, rigorous thrill of art was overwhelming, as we spilled out, chattering and laughing, into the summer evening air.