In a sumptuously sleazy atelier, hung with fabrics, six figures arrange themselves on what looks like a huge bedsheet flung across a mountainous heap of cushions. The symbiotically responsive glow of Michael Hulls’s lighting is already starting to fragment their bodies, isolating muscles, limbs and lines of tension in a way that gets more aggressive as the dance evolves.
The men are dressed like fighting slaves in diaper-loincloths, and the women like racy priestesses. As Alexander Zekke’s specially commissioned cello score slowly yearns for something it can never quite place, they model as athletes and wrestlers, sirens and waterbearers.
Tommy Franzén, a human rubber ball recently seen in Some Like It Hip Hop, engages Tomasin Gülgeç in a circling, capoeira-style contest just after being puppeteered across the stage by Jenny White, using rods of the sort on which sculptors impale clay limbs to hold them in place. The sublimation of piercing and control, as coldly erotic as it is beautiful, would have thrilled the heart of J G Ballard.
At the start of the second part the clothes are modern and the fabrics stripped away, revealing metal walls and ramps, like a brutalist playground in a nursery school for free runners. The dancers hang, slide, tumble and contort themselves, while the choreography shapes a language of delight from a vocabulary of torment.
With The Rodin Project, Maliphant has made something formal enough to satisfy the Académie, and sexy as (the Gates of) Hell.
By Jann Parry
Rodin, like Degas, frequently sculpted dancers in action, leaving the statuettes roughly finished rather than sleekly polished (unlike some vile modern figurines of ballet dancers). They were trying to capture transient moments in solid, static images – far harder than a choreographer turning those frozen forms back into movement.
Rodin’s art and life have been the subject of many ballets – at least four in recent years, inevitably involving his love affair with the sculptress, Camille Claudel: all too easy for a choreographer to recreate her as the model for The Kiss, or for a Muse or Nymph. Russell Maliphant mostly avoids the obvious in The Rodin Project by insisting in a programme note that the piece isn’t biographical: ‘It’s about the inspirations that we take from Rodin and what inspired him’.
In Afterlight, Maliphant and his lighting designer, Michael Hulls, animated Nijinsky’s obsessive circular drawings into a remarkable swirling solo for Daniel Proietto. Nijinsky’s troubled musings were spun into dance. In The Rodin Project, Maliphant and Hulls transform dancers’ flesh into plaster, marble or bronze as they assume poses from Rodin’s sculptures. Spectacularly top-lit, their lithe bodies lack the rough-hewn power of Rodin’s creations (or Claudel’s). Only in the second part of the piece, referring directly to Rodin’s The Gates of Hell, do the dancers accomplish the feverish, off-balance movement the sculptor worked for 30 years to immortalise.
The Project is split into two halves: white, soft and slow; dark, hard and fast. In the first half, Es Devlin’s sloping set suggests an artist’s studio. Heaps of cloth used for clay and plaster modelling are piled high; swathes of suspended fabric are pulled aside to drape women’s bodies. Since the women already wear mini-togas and the men are in loincloths, they presumably represent the classical statuary that Rodin studied. Alexander Zekke’s assertive score sounds like the scrapings and tappings of chisels.
The choreography seems to evolve from conventionally graceful arm-wavings for the three women to warrior-like encounters for the men . En route we see the erotic intertwining of The Kiss couple and the incarnation of statuesque Dickson Mbi as The Thinker. Everything happens hazily in slow motion, preparing for Rodin’s monumental vision of the chaos of Dante’s Inferno in the second half.
Now the six dancers are either in street clothes or virtually naked. The set, stripped of its sheeting, is all hard angles with a steep wall at the back. The unyielding surfaces serve as slides and diving boards for parkour acrobatics. In The Gates of Hell figures writhe and tumble in high relief around the frames of doors Rodin designed for a museum entrance. The effect is so destabilising that it’s hard to tell whether the damned souls are climbing or falling. Rodin recycled some of the figures as stand-alone statues, including the crouching Thinker – maybe originally intended as Dante.
Maliphant isolates his dancers in sequences punctuated by blackouts, as though featuring different aspects of Rodin’s creations. After a virtuso group display of leaps, spins and rolls over each others’ bodies and the set, there’s a sudden stillness. Hulls’s golden lighting sculpts a nude female body in sensual curves and dusky folds. The men come forward to arrange her positions on a plinth – a lapse of judgement on Maliphant’s part. They’re wearing cloaks that make them resemble The Burghers of Calais, or Rodin modelling Camille. Once they’ve gone, the music goes soulful for her fluid, lonesome solo: beautiful but verging on dance as look-at-me-art. (For a spectacularly bad example, see Boris Eifman’s Rodin ballet on YouTube.)
Then it’s the turn of Dickson Mbi to become a Rodin bronze, which he does heroically. He’s the most anguished soul of all, striking knotted poses and bringing different muscles into play, burnished by light from above. Tommy Frantzen springs into action in an athletic solo, fusing breakdancing and capoeira as though he were molten metal. The music, harsh for the group’s tumbling, eases into jazzy droning. The women, three graces or shades, mark time by the back wall, three muses or shades.
The climax of the entire piece is a breathtaking duet for Franzen and Mbi, treating a vertical surface as though it were the floor – the disorienting device of Rodin’s doorway. As if magnetized, they cling to the wall and each other’s bodies, changing places and defying gravity until Frantzen hangs down Mbi’s back. The duet starts and ends with Frantzen perched on top of the vertiginous wall. The piece should finish on the high note of the duet. Instead, there’s a group finale with supplicant hands (Rodin sculpted lots of pairs of hands) picked out in light.
The Rodin Project suffers from the same structural problems as Maliphant’s expanded Afterlight. He’s poured his and his dancers’ creative energies into a superb solo or duet. Then he’s added sequences for more dancers based on improvisation around an artist’s life and work in order to make a ‘full-length’ evening of dance. Though Hulls’s mesmerising lighting skills help make the various aspects cohere, they still have the feel of workshop segments filling out the music until the real reason for the piece arrives.
5 Stars by Alice Audley
Inspired by the controversial French sculptor Auguste Rodin, award-winning choreographer Russell Maliphant has directed yet another extraordinary dance performance – The Rodin Project.
Opening in Angel’s Sadler’s Wells Theatre, Maliphant’s production was both fascinating and exhilarating, while also deeply unnerving. Gentle stroking, elegant spinning and torsos intertwining romantically one minute were harshly juxtaposed with jutting spines, angled limbs, writhing bodies and rasping rib-cages the next.
In particular, dancer Dickinson Mbi’s (who was spotted by Maliphant just last year at Sadler’s Wells) manipulation of his body made for addictive viewing. His shoulders parted from his neck, his legs wandered from his hips, his back curved from his stomach in a series of completely disconnected, yet utterly connected human expressions. His body appeared possessed, lost and out of control, yet he was controlling it.
Designed by Es Devlin and Bronia Housman, the set had three main changes. At the performances’ opening, the audience were softly brought into a white calm space. Four large drapes hung from the top of the set to the bottom (upstage) – their ends tickling the stage floor happily, behind which rested a jigsaw of blocks: some smooth, some edged and all white.
The three female dancers stepped on to stage in costumes, designed by Stevie Steward, that directly reflected the set – white togas, tied loosely around their shoulders, midriffs and waists. They looked like Vestal Virgins as they slowly peeled back the four giant pieces of cloth. Peeling aside the purity, calm and relaxed pretense of human nature for the demonstration of the raw actual interior of being that Maliphant was about to thrust us in to.
The second set was black – all cloths, drapes and white material were removed. The jigsaw centerpiece, that had been softened by its cover, now stood stark and angular. The dancers surrounded it, not so much approaching the stage but hunting it. Eerie, inverted and tumultuous, the dancing predators preyed on each other, replicating segments of movements in a perfect organisation of the disorganised.
The third set still had jigsaw-effect cubes and remained black, but it also featured an eight-foot wall, on which the homoerotic laced, anti-gravitational routine of dancers Tommy Franzen and Dickinson Mbi performed a routine that rendered the audience mute and gained a standing ovation. A testament to the physical and mental strength of the human being, the piece, tinged with rejection and resilience, was exceptional.
Visible throughout the entirety of the production were the fleeting bodily reincarnations of Rodin’s works – The Thinker, The Walking Man, The Age of Bronze and most hauntingly, The Gates of Hell – were all scattered among the dancers and were brought ever so much more to life by the ethereal lighting of Michael Hulls.
This lighting combined with the scratching, uncomfortable and brilliant music from Russian composer Alexander Zekke, unfolding Maliphant’s story further than pure dance ever could. Near the end of the performance, the six dancers stood by beams of thin white light and desperately grappled with their hands trying to take a hold of it. It was as if the light was divine understanding and, like the dancers unable to contain it, it was as if Maliphant was saying that although we can get glimmers, we will never be able to control or fully understand life.
From poised, chaste Vestal Virgins, to a naked temptress; from a testosterone-fuelled, neanderthal-esque fight, to a homoerotic scene of repression – Maliphant’s The Rodin Project captures the contrasts and angles of human nature, in a performance that is truly magnificent.
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