Light and Dance

The announcement — followed by immediate ticket sales — of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s sequel to Phantom of the Opera, Love Never Dies, was a reminder of the Eighties and Nineties, when a new West End musical was a genuine theatrical event, rather than a transparent attempt to cash-in on an already well-known franchise, like Dirty Dancing, Sister Act or — er — Love Never Dies. It was also a reminder of a period when the talk after the show was as much — sometimes more — about the set than the songs, perhaps most famously Miss Saigon, where a full-sized helicopter landed on stage.

This year I’ve seen much more dance and experimental theatre than traditional shows, and have been consistently dazzled by the simple spectacle of bare stages, tight performances and creative lighting. Whether at the Edinburgh Fringe, Sadlers Wells or converted warehouses in London, the year’s most memorable moments have not been those that attempt to replicate reality, but those that create their own consistent worlds, conceptual rather than concrete. And the man behind many of them, including last week’s beautiful, simple Afterlight at Sadlers Wells, was lighting designer Michael Hulls, best known for his work with Russell Maliphant. Here’s a demonstration of his work in Maliphant’s recent collaboration with Robert Lepage and Sylvie Guillem, Eonnagata, which I wrote about earlier this year.

Dance theatre is the perfect playground for lighting designers, because you can’t clutter up the stage with props. Consequently, dance designers work with suggestion and projection, rather than with complex sets. Here’s a look at Wayne McGregor’s Entity, which I wrote about last year:

Entity creates an entire, vivid, complete world of its own on stage, a sci-fi adventure in dance. So does this mean that there’s no place for funfairs, sewers and helicopters? Not necessarily. But before they set about recreating reality, particularly at West End budgets — the Broadway production of Spider-Man is rumoured to cost more than $40 million — producers should perhaps be calling Michael Hulls, or Wayne McGregor’s designer Lucy Carter, before applying for that loan.

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Random Dance: Entity

This week saw the premiere of Wayne McGregor’s new show Entity, created for his own Random Dance company. It’s a thrilling piece of theatre that begins with a small, simple, silent Edward Muybridge animation of a greyhound running, and builds to a vast, ecstatic climax that sent us light headed and light-footed out into the night.

Entity is like the best science fiction film you can imagine. The setting and staging are almost brutally sparse: the dancers wear plain white t-shirts and black briefs, and the setting is essentially a pure white space. The action is intensely human: there is love, and death, and dread, and friendship. The themes are utterly contemporary: plague, oppression, artificial life. And the dancers seem post-human, their atheleticism borrowed from some future evolution of mankind, the simplicity of their clothes and haircuts androgynous and sexual all at once. It’s chilling, uplifting and beautiful: there’s an extraordinary sequence about halfway through, in which a virus seems to spread across the stage, killing off the dancers one by one, laying them in rows across the floor, that’s un-nerving and exquisite all at once. Like the finest science fiction, Entity is fiercely engaged with its time while developing a language all its own:

McGregor is one of dance’s best ambassadors. Firstly because he brings a dazzling curiosity about the world to an art form that can often feel very closed, endlessly referring back upon itself. And secondly because he understands that opening up is not the same as dumbing down. In films like the clip above, in events like his recent open evening at the Royal Opera House, and in the research and science projects that are integral to Random Dance, he offers audiences new ways into dance while constantly extending its boundaries. Dance is undeniably elitist, but it’s equal opportunities elitism: it’s not about who you are, but about how much you’re prepared to put into it. Entity offers no easy story, no easy message, no easy language to discuss what you’ve seen; but I’ve rarely felt an audience concentrate so intensely during a performance, nor experience such exhilaration at its climax.

Something out of nothing

Last week I spent an evening at the Royal Opera House watching resident choreographer Wayne McGregor create an entirely new work, Something, in front of an audience. Over two hours we watched spellbound as he worked with six young dancers who had never performed together before, shaping the piece from a combination of raw imagination, fragments of music and the physique and personality of each individual performer.

Generally, of course, the actual creation of any work is fantastically boring to watch, as every movie about writers demonstrates. But seeing McGregor and his dancers together was a revelation, not so much for the physical grace of the performers (which nonetheless made me feel about 10,000 years of evolution behind) as for the mental challenge of the art. 

McGregor is a thoroughly conceptual artist, more inspired by semiotics, mathematics and philosophy than music. His work expresses ideas as much as emotions: it’s fluid, sensual and spontaneous, its imperfections enhanced as often as they’re ironed out. This is extremely demanding on the dancers: there’s little familiar choreographic language to fall back on, so it requires extraordinary memory as well as skill. The tiniest flick of a wrist, the inward curl of a foot, must be remembered, repeated and co-ordinated with the others, over and over again. It’s less like watching a theatre director than an architect, sculpting complex forms in three dimensions: more Sketches of Frank Gehry than The Red Shoes. By the end, as McGregor united two entirely separate trios into a thrilling, unpredictable sextet, it was like watching someone write a different novel with each hand: an extraordinary feat of co-ordination, imagination and craft. This event, created by Belinda Briones, is exactly what the ROH should be doing to attract new audiences: demanding, fascinating and rewarding, and deepening our appreciation of the art.