National Dance Company Wales: Awakening review – a welcome return

Awakening marks only the second time that National Dance Company Wales has come to the Royal Opera House, with an ambitious mixed bill that reflects the company’s founding intention to showcase emerging choreographers from the international field. It includes two London premieres, Afterimage and Revellers’ Mass, which seems fitting for the sparkling new Linbury theatre, recently reopened after the Royal Opera House’s £50m revamp.

First, Tundra (2017), by the Spanish choreographer Marcos Morau, a richly patterned work, sartorially and choreographically. Performers in leggings and thick bodices banded in eye-watering designs are ranged in a column, kicking legs, twitching torsos and flicking arms in a Mexican wave down the line. Synchronised limbs form kaleidoscopic patterns, including a spectacular spinning helix of arms. It’s similar to watching a time-lapse video of plants growing – a satisfying experience, though more ornamental than innovative.

At only 20 minutes long, Afterimage nevertheless packs an emotional punch. Brazilian choreographer Fernando Melo bisects the stage with a two-way mirror, creating several simmering versions of reality. Two dancers sit at a small table, crisply gesturing and reaching for one another in an embodied argument; behind the mirror, Elena Sgarbi mimics and interrupts their reflections.

Afterimage’s distinct, delineated movement feels as if it could be decoded and translated into words; when that movement slows, its honeyed speed suggests a breakdown in communication that has given way to pure bodily yearning. Music, lighting and movement achieve a mesmerising synchronicity.

As well as choreographing for a number of European companies, Melo has worked in opera too, which may explain his sensitivity to all aspects of stagecraft and performance. He also directs film (his Mahjong won the 2010 audience award at the San Francisco Dance film festival), and Afterimage has a moody film noir flavour.

Revellers’ Mass is an exploration of communion, ceremony and religious fervour that wickedly evokes the kitsch camp of highly ritualised observances. The stage is dominated by a long table, reminiscent of the one featured in Da Vinci’s The Last Supper. Gabriella Slade’s stunning costumes drape the performers in lace gowns; naked mannequins populate the stage and choral music rends the air.

Fever pitch… National Dance Company Wales perform Caroline Finn’s Revellers’ Mass. Photograph: Rhys Cozens

Dominated by a hilariously magisterial cult leader in Ed Myhill, the company stands in groups of two or three, jerking and coiling in mystical preparation, until all hell (or heaven) breaks loose and they draw together to perform an energetic, virtuosic rite. Cyril Durand-Gasselin seems to break away as a hand-standing heretic; Elena Sgarbi, hunched and desperate, reveals herself as a craven worshipper.

Choreographer Caroline Finn was artistic director of National Dance Company Wales from 2015-17, and became resident choreographer in 2018. It is perhaps her familiarity with the company that makes Revellers’ Mass feel so peopled by individual personality, even while the ensemble as a whole is lost to orgiastic backbends and dervish spins. When the rite reaches fever pitch the evening ends not with a bang, nor whimper, but to the humorous strains of Non, je ne regrette rien – the carnival winds down and the performers quietly clean up the mess.

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