It’s fair to say that 28 years ago, the debut production by Wim Vandekeybus and his company Ultima Vez changed the face of European dance theatre. In a landscape dominated by neoclassical lines set to contemporary classical scores, Ultima Vez quite literally crashed onto the scene with a vocabulary built on combat rolls, whole-body assaults on the floor and some pretty dangerous-looking brick hurling. That the work still looks fresh and modern is testimony to how truly groundbreaking it was in 1987.
The opening section of the piece (sometimes excerpted as “Hands”) still thrills with its intensely rhythmic interplay between a lone percussionist at the back of the stage playing an amplified table-top, and the two floorbound dancers answering each musical phrase in movement. There’s almost something of a South Asian classical structure to this sequence – rhythms pounded out on a table (rather than a tabla) and repeated in percussive body movement – but with a hyper-physical twist that finds the dancers flipping upside down and landing in the plank position in ever-quicker, ever more impossible unison.
Critics dubbed the style “Eurocrash” (although the name has been fondly adopted since by fans) and it’s probably the second section that finds Vandekeybus’s choreography at its most aggressive. Dancers circle the stage with wild (but perfectly-timed) sprints and leaps, and lob plaster blocks across the stage with apparent disregard for the safety of their colleagues. The eye is repeatedly drawn across the stage by arcs of flying plaster, then surprised by action erupting on the other side of the stage. It’s a carefully-controlled form of anarchy, born of clever stucture and split-second timing with the constant danger of descending into chaos.
In fact, if there’s one criticism to be had about this revival it’s that the performers are a little too slick with the material. There’s certainly one kind of delight to be had from watching the absolute trust that springs from knowing with absolute certainty that a brick or a body will be flying to a certain place onstage at a given time. Veterans in the audience may miss the rougher edge of earlier stagings, however, in which the cast often appeared to be in genuinely imminent danger.
Later sections are more playful – a sequence with the cast parading across the diagonal in a succession of rapidly changing beach towels has something of Pina’s processions about it, with an additional lick of towel-based humour. Attempts to take a group photograph go absurdly wrong when one member of the cast seems unsure which way is up.
Vandekeybus doesn’t let us stay comfortable for too long, however – a lengthy central sequence sees three women engaged in an extended game of non-consensual frisking with three male partners. If it’s uncomfortable to watch when the men’s advances are clearly unwelcome, it becomes even more so when some of the women seem to enjoy the brutal attention.
The performance is accompanied by robust live music from the Ictus ensemble, some of it ear-grating polyphonia, some of it uptempo jungle ryhthms. Whether you enjoy the music – and the production – probably depends on how bruising you like your scores and your movement. If your answer, like mine, is “very”, there’s probably no more enjoyable show in town this season.
Touring until 20th March – http://www.ultimaveztour.co.uk
Originally published at www.londondance.com