Live, urgent, but with a slightly recycled feel

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Live, urgent, but with a slightly recycled feel
In an undated image provided by Camilla Greenwell, Salomé Pressac in Wim Vandekeybus’s “Draw From Within.” The British dance company Rambert livestreams a new choreographic work by Wim Vandekeybus. Camilla Greenwell via The New York Times.

by Brian Seibert

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- In London on Saturday night, the venerable British dance company Rambert performed “Draw From Within,” a new work by the Belgian choreographer Wim Vandekeybus. I watched it from my home in Brooklyn.

Such viewing from afar, once rare in concert dance, has become ordinary. But where most such performances these days are free and prerecorded, this one was ticketed and livestreamed. If you missed the show, you couldn’t catch it later, so it had immediacy. But, unlike most livestreams, this was not a static recording or a glitchy presentation over Zoom. Watching it felt more like watching a movie, immersive and absorbing, yet easily the most technically sophisticated live dance production I’ve seen since theaters closed.

Filmed entirely within Rambert’s studios, the work seemed to roam, via moving cameras and moving sets, through different spaces, scenes, dreams. We were in a dark place, in the middle of dancers who drew figures in the air with smoke from extinguished torches. And then — suddenly, smoothly — we were in the dojo of some martial arts cult, or witnessing the birth of a miracle child who turned out to be a murderer, or, most topically, trapped in a sinister hospital ward.

If that sounds like a series of nightmares, you’re getting the idea. Occasionally, the mood lightened, as when “You and Me” by Penny & the Quarters came on the soundtrack, and Salomé Pressac — one of the most striking of the telegenic Rambert dancers — swayed and shimmied with delicious nonchalance, unimpressed by a suitor. Yet even then, the undertone was menacing, and the next moment, Pressac found herself ensnared by wires.

Those wires, wielded by leaning dancers and slicing up space, are a good example of the production’s ingenuity and also of how that ingenuity was continually applied in the service of intensity. Over time, though, that relentless intensity grew to feel monotonous and manufactured.

Apart from a little bit of soul, the soundtrack tended toward Eastern European wedding music and a lot of electric guitar. The hyped-up choreography, in fact, often resembled simultaneous guitar solos: the dancers noodling, flinging themselves around, always jumping and spinning at once. Or, to borrow a metaphor from the work itself, the dancing was like that smoke: sinuous and short-lived, however many times the torch was relighted.

The supple, vigorous dancers were equal to the physical challenges. They could handle the acting. But the dramatic scenarios, intended to be surreal, were instead generic, built out of familiar ideas from horror films, skillfully recycled and reproduced but not allusive in any illuminating way. If “Draw From Within” was like a movie, it was like a movie you’ve seen before.

The state of emergency it presented was ersatz, conventional, a trademark of Mr. Vandekeybus. I might have been more receptive to it if we were not in a real one. Everyone on the long list of rolling credits deserves praise for pulling off this show, but the stakes of relevance are much higher now than before the pandemic, when the production was first planned.

Near the end of the production, one dancer, playing a clueless host or fatuous TV news reporter, asked, “What is this? What are they doing?” In another time, the question might have registered rhetorically, as satire or as a commentary on criticism. On Saturday, I wanted to know the answer.

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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