Push at Sadlers Wells

PUSH.SWT.21-3-2007

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.

Eonnagata at Sadlers Wells

eon

Darkness. Light. Skeletons. Silk. Red. White. Black. What’s startling about Eonnagata, a collaboration between Sylvie Guillem, Russell Maliphant and Robert Lepage, is not its sophistication but its simplicity. There’s no theatrical technique here that wasn’t wowing audiences two millennia ago: it’s all music, shadows, mirrors and light. But it’s all done so skillfully, so precisely that these age-old methodologies seem newly-minted, plucked fresh from the air.

The subject of the show is Charles-Geneviève-Louis-Auguste-André-Timothée d’Éon de Beaumont (try fitting that on a credit card) otherwise known as the Chevalier d’Eon, a French poet, soldier, diplomat and spy of the 18th century who also found time to live half his/her life as a woman, the other as a man: onnagata is a Kabuki tradition of men who play female roles. Like a real-life Orlando, d’Eon flickers through the history of the period — here a vengeful warrior, there a girl about town — without ever quite coalescing into something absolutely whole. The same could be said of this episodic, occasionally irritating work, but it’s a thrilling, captivating evening nonetheless.

There are two main problems. First, the show never quite figures out how to fit together spectacle and narrative, with the result that d’Eon’s life is narrated largely in a series of monologues, slipped between sequences of dance. Second, as so often when artists from different disciplines work together, each tends to hold the others back. Lepage, for example is no dancer — he moves like a slightly constipated frog — and his clumsiness inhibits Guillem’s beguiling grace. But still, there are exquisite moments: Maliphant’s robust silhouette dissolving into Guillem’s brushstroke form; the two of them together in a doorway, rapt in passion, drenched in light; a final, chilling tableau as d’Eon slips from life. All of these are brilliantly done, their technical perfection matched by their emotional power. The costumes too, by Alexander McQueen, are astonishing: rich, flowing and as changeable as the Chevalier him/herself.

Above all though, this is theatre stripped down to its basics, its illusions older than drama itself. That’s what makes it so exciting, and why, days afterward, it haunts your mind. Like the Chevalier d’Eon, things change, things stay the same, things change.