Theatre in Wales

Theatre, dance and performance reviews

All Smoke and Mirrors and Gilding Dancers

National Dance Company Wales Spring Tour

National Dance Company of Wales , Sherman Theatre , May-05-19
National Dance Company Wales Spring Tour by National Dance Company of Wales National Dance Company Wales Spring Tour at Sherman Cardiff -
After seeing the youthful and international NDCW perform at the Sherman, it occurred to me that choreographing in the contemporary idiom is the hardest of all, precisely because there is no idiom, no set language, as it were. At the beginning of each dance the choreographer has to invent a new vocabulary to express their concept. It's not just finding a good idea, or creating the right mood, or using brilliant movement or steps, or structuring the dance well with the perfect music or score, or choosing the right dancers and then getting on with them; it's all of the above, but added to this the dance maker must create this clear, new "language" that will exist only to express the concept of that particular piece.

NDCW's Awakening programme comprises three works, each succeeding differently at this complex and difficult task. In reverse order, the last item in the programme was the interestingly titled "Revellers's Mass" by Caroline Finn, promising to "Delve into a world of ritual as an un-likely group gathers for a dinner party...". Finn has taken religeous ritual and iconic works of art as the inspiration for her piece. We see immediately that Leonardo's "Last Supper" is one of the art works used, since the stage is dominated by a long table, initially lit at even intervals by candles, with the dancers arranged implicitly around it. Elegantly and eccentrically costumed, they cavort and play off each other in a frenzied chaos of nonsense ritual to an eclectic mix of musics: everything from Pergolesi to Edith Piaf. What started out as a potentially good idea became more and more muddied as the dance progressed. This was perhaps the most "dancey" piece of the evening but that didn't save the dance from a general lack of clarity in concept and content.

The middle work of the evening, "After Image", by Brazilian Fernando Melo (who trained at Vienna State Opera Ballet and now lives in Europe) was very intriguing. Melo succeeds completely with his concept, " evoke a personal response from each person (in the audience) without providing a single narrative". But it's precisely here that the piece falls down as it begs desperately for more of a narrative. It is a strange and un-settling interchange between ghostly figures, it creates the expectation of a developing story-line, like a Henry James style emotional thriller or even a ghost story: the all important letter; those disembodied hands appearing and disappearing as they give the letter to one character or take it away from another; the figures emerging from the darkness; the double images created by the "mirror" reflections. Characters materialise, ghost like, to then become solid as the more solid characters disappear. These are men and women gesturing whilst seated at tables, solid or reflected as in another dimension. Their dancing and gesturing are suggestive of dark longing and mysterious secrets. It's all very evocative and un-nerving.

Shortish at 20 minutes, the piece was commandingly performed by the dancers and extremely smart sceno-technically. The choreographer reveals that he has explored a "sleight of hand" technique known as "Pepper's Ghost", developed in the nineteenth century and subsequently used in seances, fairground shows and theatrical illusions. It involves clever lighting, carefully angled reflective glass or perspex and a perfect mirror image of the stage scene known as the "blue room". Melo's use of this is subtle and he clearly had to do a lot of experimentation with the dancers, the "blue room" and the lighting to get the correct "ghost" effects. Perhaps, due to the technical challenges of the piece, the choreographer needed more time to really go somewhere with the idea, which was so tantalising but somehow not fully developed or fulfilled.

And so to "Tundra" by Marcos Morau, the opening work of the evening which (technical considerations aside) might have worked better at the end of the programme since it was by far the most successful and brilliant and a prime example of how, to be truly original, you have to create a specific choreographic language to express your idea. Many years ago, in another city and on another continent I saw a touring, Russian folk-dance troupe called Beriozka. They opened their show with a dance to balalaika music: a file of beautiful, tall girls with plaited, blonde hair and headgear and long red dresses that reached the ground, glided onto the stage. The extraordinary thing was the way they moved around the space, their upper bodies still apart from graceful arm movements, and as their hovering and gliding got faster and their interweaving dance more complex we asked ourselves, long ago in that other theatre, how did they move like that, it was as if they were on wheels, yet their gliding was so smooth and the speed and direction of movement so controlled?

The mysterious opening of Tundra is a single figure standing, with a circular, almost halo-like headress and long skirt, as she makes beautiful but staccato arm and hand gestures to a distant voice singing a Russian "Cradle Song" over an electronic droning or humming. The figure is vaguely reminiscent, in a dimly lit, post modern sort of way, of those distant Russian folk dancers. She is static in space, but when the other dancers appear they all move with the Beriozka glide and all have long dark skirts that almost touch the stage, hooped at hem level and possibly weighted, so that the feet are never visible. Their sliding, gliding, almost hovering progress is hypnotic. They are lit by a wide, slender, rectangular, LED strip light which flies in almost to stage level to contain the dancers or lifts to light them from just above. Sadly, this hypnotic and mysterious beginning was a stand alone statement that cuts abruptly to the next section rather than developing or transitioning into it, which was a pity since it denies the possibility of a metamorphosis.

But this next section was even more ingenious, movement-wise, since the dancers - almost always physically linked - perform impossible, sometimes virtuoso feats of sequential or unison movement somehow marrying the opposite qualities of staccato and fluid. At one point their linked arms become one snaking rope, tying itself in knots and unravelling into a one smooth, sinuous line. Are these mystery figures from the Russian tundra, or from those Eastern, ex Soviet "Stans" or, at one point - as the sequential movement becomes even more bizarre and staccato-serpentine - are they extra-terrestrial "tundra bots" fallen to earth? Morau explores just about every sequential or unison possibility without going anywhere in particular to resolve the dance. But, despite this lack of resolution, his strange choreography really works, the dance coming together with all design elements including sound, to make an integrated whole: the ingenious lighting and stage setting (Joseff Fletcher); the beautiful costumes (Angharad Matthews) with those clever skirts of the beginning and the all-in-ones of the second section in colourful mixtures of Russian, folksy floral patterns, stripes and geometric designs with a bit of glitter, textured and layered in strips to enhance the sequential qualities of the movement.

Morau is a Valencian choreographer who has already won a number of international awards for his work. Tundra was nominated in 2018 for an Achievement in Dance at The UK Theatre Awards. He's clearly a talent to watch.

The last scheduled performance of National Dance Company Wales' "Awakening" programme is on Teusday 7th May at Theatre Severn in Shrewsbury, starting at 7.30 PM. Call 01743 281 281 or visit

Reviewed by: Jenny March

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