Virtual Descent / Noces / Water Stories

Choreography by Eleesha Drennan, Angelin Preljocaj, Stephen Petronio
National Dance Company Wales
Linbury Studio Theatre, Royal Opera House

NDCW in Angelin Preljocaj's Noces Credit: Roy Campbell-Moore
NDCW in Stephen Petronio's Water Stories Credit: Rhys Cozens
NDCW in Eleesha Drennan's Virtual Descent Credit: Roy Campbell-Moore

Dance is a continuum and new choreography inevitably carries echoes or traces of what has come before, subconsciously or consciously embroidering and reworking with a fresh dynamic.

A young company, thirty years old this year, the National Dance Company Wales boldly and proudly presents two new works, Virtual Descent and Water Stories, either side of its central number, Angelin Preljocaj’s Noces, as part of its autumn tour to London.

A conscious reworking of a 1923 masterpiece Preljocaj’s 1989 Noces dispenses with the family in Bronislava Nijinska’s—here we have five couples, men in regular shirts and ties, women in short Irish folk dresses, in combative form. And bride rag dolls to be tossed, tussled, wrestled and hung out to dry.

At the heart of Igor Stravinsky’s ballet cantata score, its libretto taken from Pyotr Kireyevsky’s folk song collection, one hears the heavy hand of tradition and the plaintive cries of the arranged marriages’ sacrificial victims.

The songs and ballads sung by gypsies at Russian weddings of old are a record of this custom. No wonder Russians shout ‘bitter’ at weddings. Preljocaj picks up on what he calls the Balkan tradition of his childhood memories: the show of respectability, the raw reality of sexual tensions, the funereal tragedy of it all.

Incidentally, one song that can be heard still today is Matushka (a favourite of Pushkin’s apparently), a chilling ballad from the early eighteenth century of a young bride duped by her caring mother into marriage to a stranger—‘the consented rape’ that Preljocaj describes in his hectic battle of the sexes.

His women are as vital and energetic as the men. Throwing themselves acrobatically into the men’s arms, they are rolled over repeatedly on to the ground in exhausting rough and tumble.

A bacchanalia of dance in what could be a school gym or village hall. Five benches circle the space—beds, battle rams, their legs rakes against the foe, and gibbets for the beaten into submission rag doll brides.

New York choreographer Stephen Petronio’s soothing Water Stories, a specially commissioned work with music from Atticus Ross (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), is a considered response to the Welsh lakes and seascape. And the properties of water are a perfect fit for dance.

Water synonyms are like that myth of the Eskimo’s many words for snow. Watching Water Stories against Matthew Brandt’s Welsh landscape photograph projections that melt and run, the naiads and dryads, the loin-clothed gods of the sea, the swim-suited women—Llŷr's children—makes for a word association game.

Spin, tumble, ripple, roll, bubble, babble, splash, swirl, surge, gush, trickle, drip and envelope—is what the dancers do. Still balances, languid moves, water eroding solid rocks, boats moored in the shallows, high mast legs.

The dancers give it their all, forced on by Ross’s triple beats. Fast and furious, slow and melting, powerful in aqueduct bridge brick collective, they dam and swell in terse formation and duet, and liquid solos to a rain-lashing end.

A young cast of twelve international contemporary dancers does artistic director, Ann Sholem, and Wales proud, but it must surely be Canadian dynamo Eleesha Drennan’s night.

The evening opens with Virtual Descent by NDCW house choreographer Drennan. Not only does she perform in the above two pieces, has choreographed the first, but Virtual Descent has its costumes designed by her, too, in true auteur fashion.

In black cutout one-pieces, piebald figures, half human half android, descend a staircase. And repeat in many variations to Mark Bowden’s score, its percussive section given a masterful live performance by Julian Warburton.

Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase? Coppélia doll automatons and space age samurai warriors—abstract, futuristic, oriental in soundscape and controlled gestures. A borrowing of Wayne McGregor’s sway-backed, artificial intelligence vocabulary?

Joe Fletcher’s minimalist set and film noir lighting—very Michael Hulls—give Virtual Descent dramatic focus and tension after a Russell Maliphant AfterLight gentle opening moment. So many influences abound in Drennan’s searching and demanding work.

Reviewer: Vera Liber

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