Ten minutes to face the apocalypse! A dance-off for dark times

There are questions about the validity of scoring art (hey, some of us have made a living out of it) but people love competitions. And one of the most intriguing and egalitarian is Danse Élargie, devised by French choreographer Boris Charmatz. There are just two rules: the time limit is 10 minutes and there must be at least three performers on stage. Beyond that, it’s open season. You don’t even have to be a choreographer to enter.

A cream-of-the-crop showcase of finalists was at Sadler’s Wells, London at the weekend, giving a glimpse into what’s on the minds of dance artists right now. What did we learn? Mainly that the vogue for gloom remains strong. Stern silence, ominous rumbling, half-lit stages and encroaching doom are (almost) all-pervasive. We’re in dark times, in case you needed reminding.

One surprise is that last year’s winner was a British choreographer, Kwame Asafo-Adjei, a name under the radar here. His winning work, Family Honour, is sophisticated in its use of hip-hop language for theatrical ends, in a tensely contained dispute that tells of the repression of young women by older religious men. New talent, old story.

The prize for the gang I most want to join goes to choreographer Ousmane Sy’s Queen Blood, a squad of seven women, springing as if from hot coals in frisky house footwork. It’s ultra-disciplined and brimming with attitude and sisterhood. It’s a Yas Queen from me.

A beach scene with no beach … MUR/MER. Photograph: Sadlers Wells

Elsewhere, there’s a jumpstyle crew that comes over like Riverdance of the banlieues, and a giant silver pillow that inflates to fill the whole stage, absorbing and exuding naked bodies. But the stand-out, most resonant, work is Elsa Chêne’s MUR/MER. The Brussels-based theatre director presents a beach scene with no beach. Towels laid out, bikinis, inflatables and sunscreen; a gradual gathering of people with their backs to us, facing a non-existent sea. And instead of the sun, just grey light, eerily slow movement freezing into tableau, and a creeping crescendo of white noise.

The subversion of the sunny beach scene is fascinating and unsettling enough but as the wash of noise rises, the bodies lying on the floor take on a different guise. It feels like an apocalypse in the offing. Chêne’s title suggests that blank backdrop is a wall, with the discarded bodies those shut out. My first thought was climate crisis, innocent basking in the heat flipped to something cataclysmic – as everyone watching just stares into the distance. Whatever you see, Chêne’s simple imagery is potent.

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