REVIEW: Rambert Dance Company’s Awakening spring tour at the Theatre Royal Brighton

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WHAT it is to be human was the concept common to the focus of all three works on Wednesday when Rambert Dance Company’s “Awakening” Spring Tour began its four-day stop at Brighton’s Theatre Royal.

Siobhan Davies’ The Art Of Touch, choreographed by her in 1995, was revived, as was the second work, Rain Forest, the 1968 creation of the American great, Merce Cunningham. And an evening’s challenging entertainment — as ever from the world-leading Rambert — concluded with Aletta Collins’ remarkable Awakenings, which Rambert premiered in September.

Digital feeling and sensitivity was explored by Davies. Humans juxtaposed with animals was Cunningham’s study. Then came Collins’ unusual venture, which starts from the stirrings into life of victims of an extraordinary chronic disease that changed sufferers of a sleepy sickness into living statues capable of animation and awakening only by music.

Davies’ final tableau in The Art Of Touch seemed to indicate that we each have variable degrees of sensual response to touch, by this the greatest being lifted the highest. Harpsichord music by Scarlatti and Matteo Fargion, all fired by the variation of human touch on the instrument, was Davies’ initial inspiration, and the raised closed fist — something ‘anti’-touch — was among the recurrent motifs.

In Rain Forest, Cunningham’s dancers portray human and suggest mammalian roles amid a physical and aural setting borne of two significant collaborations.

Firstly, the electronic music of David Tudor, operated by John Bowers and Rambert principal percussionist Robert Millet (also a member of Worthing Symphony Orchestra). This was highly evocative of a tropical animal and vegetation environment, being generated by loudspeakers coloured by the resonation of their varying physical materials of construction.

Secondly, Rain Forest drew on Andy Worhol’s Silver Clouds 1966 installation, which lent a backdrop of shiny silver, helium-filled giant pillows, lit in metallic blue, plus three loose pillows free to float off the stage and into the auditorium. The relevance of these was less easy to fathom but the gentle movement of the floating pillows created a feeling of grace and naive peace.

Finally to Awakenings, and to name the Tour thus, and to base its principal work on the impact of a bizarre worldwide human epidemic of 1916 to 1927 — encephalitis lethargica — and its full documentation by Dr Oliver Sacks, is probably something historic in the art of dance.

The condition produced dramatic behaviours, from statuesque speechlessness thawed only by music and its rhythmic flow, to unstable movement otherwise that was either stunted or explosive. A new drug ‘awakened’ the afflicted into normal movement, thought and feeling, from previous isolation in a living death sometimes 40 years long.

The sudden onset of intolerance to the drug produced frenzies and manias, or a return to the comatose, until a tranquil intermediate state took over and stayed with many for the rest of their lives.

Collins uses Tobias Picker’s score for 15 musicians – strings, woodwinds, horns trumpets, percussion, piano and harp. Picker himself was since childhood a sufferer from Tourette tics – an apposite further collaboration.

Graphic though the music effectively was – indeed it is capable of grasping the attention ahead of the dancing — the overall artistic effect is engaging and the implication universal. Unsettling, yes. But mawkish or macabre, no.

Rambert are at the Theatre Royal from now until Saturday. The Tour repertoire also includes A Linha Curva, Cardooon Club, Hush, and Monolith.

Richard Amey