ORIGIN – the new double-bill from Scapino Ballet Rotterdam

Lior Tavori’s Killing the Butterfly . Photo by Bart Grietens

I can’t imagine that German expressionist cinema or dark eastern European literature are big in China but this was very much what I picked up from Xingxing Gong’s Kiss the Darkness, part of Origin, the new double-bill from Scapino.

I think darkness was the operative word in her impressive and masterful piece of theatre and black was the operative colour. This was all strange threatening shapes and ominous angular shadows which put me in mind of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari or the 1922 film of Nosferatu. Perhaps these subconscious and universal images grew from the fact that Ms Gong grew up as a fourth child in an era when only one was permitted per family. Despite that she became a choreographer for Beijing Opera and Dance Theatre in a country where, we are told, contemporary dance is beginning to find its feet. Nevertheless, there is still a dark side to China which, one would think, has influenced her work. While this piece was free-flowing and full of brilliant original ideas one had in the back of one’s mind that there was a certain underlying controlling strictness and one was not sure if this piece was subject to it or exposing it.

The opening sequence in what was, in effect, a series of tableaux, really set the piece up, indicating what was to come. Two dancers emerged from the darkness, gradually becoming one, their limbs intertwined so they almost became an eight-legged being like the beetle in Kafka’s Metamorphosis.

The small company of six dancers all had their moments, either alone or in various combinations all to the amazing soundscape seamlessly knitted together by Rimmert van Lummel and the mesmerizing lighting by Jasper Nijholt.

Despite the darkness and the omnipresent hint of danger, perhaps what was the most successful sequence was one of comedy. A lone male dancer slowly emerged from the wings pulling an old boot on one of those retractable dog-walking leads. He puts on the boot which seems to have a life of its own, his efforts to control it transforming him into a one-string marionette. When he is joined by two other dancers the lead becomes a cat’s cradle. The comedy was soon offset by a later sequence when five of the dancers, covered head to toe in black, their faces obscured, surrounded and menaced the sixth.

The final cameo came as a complete shock. An almost classical pas de deux to the tender and beautiful Look at Me by Damien Rice provided a powerful contrast and satisfactory conclusion to what had gone before.

Xingxing Gong’s extraordinary Kiss the Darkness succeeded on all levels as a piece of magnificent theatre and if she decides to work more in the West it will be China’s loss and our gain.

Usually Scapino’s performances are defined by single, fairly spectacular pieces with a very clear, linear narrative. Origin on the other hand, consists of two very different short pieces which provide an exercise in compare and contrast.

Israeli choreographer Lior Tavori is founder and artistic director of his eponymous dance company in Tel-Aviv and although his Killing the Butterfly had an equally disturbing title it was, on the surface, a much more upbeat optimistic affair.

The eighteen or so dancers were all dressed in shorts and vests in various pastel shades except for one girl and one boy who were wearing long frocks. The piece opened with a lone male dancer thrashing around in a huge sand pit which covered about a third of the stage. The other dances gradually arrived on stage, moving side to side, backwards and forwards like pieces on a chess board.

For a while the sand pit was forgotten but by about half-way through it came back into focus as two dancers performed a duet in it as the others watched as though around a circus ring. Slowly they all joined in with sand flying everywhere while on stage a solitary girl dancer, now in white, performed an extended solo. Surreptitiously in the dark shadows at the back of the sandpit naked bodies could be seen as they all changed into white shorts and vests before emerging onto the main stage. There then followed a startling episode where a continuous line of dancers marched  across the front of stage from right to left like a sequence of Edward Muybridge photographs.

Jasper Nijholt’s lighting also shone through in this production and along with the excellent selection of music (much more melodic in this piece), supervised again by Rimmert van Lummel, made a significant contribution to the whole.

Origin, though perhaps a little different from what we normally see from Scapino, provided two outstanding pieces which, though very different, matched beautifully and complemented each other to provide an exhilarating and thought provoking evening.  Michael Hasted 14th April 2024

Scapino’s Origin continues on tour until 9th june