The foyers are alive with activity on the night of Sadler’s Wells Sampled, a richly diverse celebration of dance and a sneak peek at what is coming up later in the season at one of London’s most exciting dance theatres. From immersive dance performances to film screenings and art installations, the foyer activity surrounding the show is an invitation to see dance not as an untouchable form reserved for the privileged few but to understand it as a central aspect of the everyday human experience.
This festival sense of welcome is extended to the layout of the auditorium, which is reconfigured to accommodate a standing space in front of the stage. Whilst energy flows freely from the stage to the audience, it does not always return: some pieces feel as thought they want more push-back from the audience, more vocals and more scattered applause to help them ignite on the stage to their fullest potential.
This is particularly true of the first piece, presented by Uchenna Dance. The women of Uchenna Dance dominate the stage to a degree that is almost frightening, working with a fluid fusion of club, African and contemporary dance styles. The head wraps are used to great effect, sometimes swung like matador capes and at other times twisted onto the head in an undulating movement that involves the whole body, these strange and powerful women growing from the earth like vivid flowers. Although choreographically a little disjointed with several drops in tension losing the audience’s full engagement, it is nonetheless a brilliant and exciting piece exploring female ritual and power.
We move from the flamboyant world of Uchenna Dance into the carefully constructed Odissi Solo with live music, danced by Mavin Khoo. This is an exceptional piece, exploring the absolute unity between the dancers and the musicians in this classical Indian form: it is unclear whether the music leads the dancer or vice-versa in this perfect symbiosis. It is intensely absorbing, and technically very sharp, with Khoo’s experience and skill enabling the minutest gesture or facial expression to be placed with absolute precision. The piece speaks strongly across cultural differences to create an inclusive, meditative space of beauty.
There are several ballet pieces included in the programme, the first of which is a disappointing excerpt of George Balanchine’s Diamonds presented by Semperoper Ballet. Although there are some pretty moments, the piece feels wobbly and imprecise, with ballerina Sangeun Lee seeming particularly tentative in her balances. This is a shame, as this was the only more classical ballet piece performed en pointe in the programme. The second Semperoper work, coming in the second half of the evening, is infinitely better. The excerpt of Neue Suite is a fluid and beautiful exploration of the boundaries of pas de deux. The piece works with a complex series of manipulations, relying on excellent partnered work and is exquisitely danced by the same pair who underwhelmed in the Balanchine.
More classically inspired dance is brought in the second half of the evening by the Richard Alston Dance Company, who bring an accomplished and lively piece in the form of an excerpt from Brahms Hungarian. Accompanied by a live pianist, the dancers are fluid and technically strong, moving with a charming musicality in a piece that feels not a little inspired by Tchaikovsky’s wonderful inclusion of national dances in Swan Lake. It is a well-danced piece, but not one that felt particularly exciting or innovative on this stage.
The evening is finished with BirdGang’s piece What is BirdGang? This is sharp, humorous and intelligent dancing, using hip hop and other contemporary street styles in vivid contrast to the classically inspired pieces. The dancing is jagged, sharp and innovative, with particularly strong use of lighting setting this piece apart and creating a completely different world onstage. Unfortunately for the final piece of the show What is BirdGang? lacks the punchy ending required to round off this varied and inspiring evening of dance, and is very much overshadowed by two pieces that have come before it which brought the house down.
Rambert2’s Killer Pig and Patricia Guerrero’s Proceso Eterno are quite simply phenomenal and are the absolute highlights of Sadler’s Wells Sampled 2019. Killer Pig is an extraordinarily visceral work of contemporary dance, with Rambert2 proving to be the most technically accomplished group of the evening. The dancing is quite simply on another level, with very strong synchronisation combined with fantastic individual work. It is a raw, ugly and challenging piece, performed with a virtuosic confidence and boldness by these incredible dancers who push their bodies to unbelievable extremes of shape and movement. Accompanied by the thumping music of Ori Lichtik, Killer Pig is a grotesque and fabulous drop into a dynamic underworld of snarling contortions and roaring bodies. Flawless.
Equally energising and awe-inspiring is Guerrero’s percussive flamenco piece, pushing the boundaries of the art form to create a stunning and unique work. Proceso Eterno is uncompromising, technically exquisite and artistically expressive both in the rapid passages of footwork and the fluid, sustained movements of the arms and torso. Guerrero dances with a drummer and then with a singer in duets that become duels, her feet pistols and whips of shattering potency and speed. It is a beautiful and powerful work, made more exquisite by the obvious relish with which Guerrero performs, revelling in her art with emotional exuberance. It is masterful and astonishing.
Sadler’s Wells Sampled is an energising and inspiring evening of dance with two particular and perhaps unexpected highlights brought by Rambert2 and Patricia Guerrero. The future of dance certainly looks bright, and the upcoming season at Sadler’s Wells is set to be scattered with exceptional work.